So-called Millennials are joining the labour force in greater number, and there is much discussion about the values, motivations and expectations of Millennials compared with other generations. The discussion is of generational differences is rarely backed up with real evidence.

It is often assumed there are significant generational differences in values. However, recent research shows that there are some difference in motivation between generations, but not in the way many people would expect.

The research used three typical categories that are typically used to describe different generations. The Baby Boomers were born in the postwar period roughly between the 1945s and 1965. The Boomers grew up during a period of relative affluence, high birth rates and the beginning of space exploration. Generation X was born between 1965 and 1985, grew up with the rise of mass media, and the end of the Cold War. The Millenials were born after 1985, grew up with the internet, the rise of international terrorism and digital globalization.

Many believe that shared generational memories of key events and experiences shape attitudes and values. Then, simply describe the differences between these groups and you’ve got generational differences. Although there are several flaws in this logic, the most glaring problem is that being born at the same time does little to guarantee any sort of shared experience. Individual values change based on a whole host of differences, from your family life, upbringing, culture, peer group and socioeconomic status. This makes it incredibly difficult to know whether “generational” differences actually exist. But the first question is when you sort people into age categories, do differences in values exist?

To look at generational differences we combined various studies on values with over 700 participants from Northern Europe and North America. These were measured using the High Potential Motivators test which includes six core values:

  • Autonomy Focus on personal and career development, relevance and
  • Recognition Desire for achievement, power status and recognition. 
  • Affiliation Desire for social responsibility, passing on knowledge, teaching and instruction and working with others.
  • Security Valuing job security, personal safety as well as consistency and regularity.
  • Compensation Compensation includes material rewards such as pay, insurance, bonuses, and job perks that are easily measurable, counted and defined.
  • Relevance  A job that fits within the person’s lifestyle and offers some flexibility.

The results do show minor generational differences in each of the six values. Most of the differences are statistically insignificant, except for Millennials valuing Compensation and Conditions significantly more than other generations. This evidence runs contrary to the common misconception that younger workers value development and self-improvement over job security and money.

However, looking a bit deeper, there is another, unsurprising finding. Older people tend to make more money. In this study, the average income was about £60,000 (USD$90,000) for Boomers and Gen X, while it was approximately £30,000 (USD$45,000). This is slightly higher than the median income for those employed full-time in the UK.

First, it should be noted that Generation Y has no significant differences in work values from the Baby Boomers, along with no significant difference in income in this sample.

When we consider the combined effect of age and income, income entirely explains the generational differences in values. Income is more than seven times more powerful at predicting values than age (see the pie chart below). When considering the effect of income, the generational/age differences becomes statistically insignificant.

Once you consider the effect of income, it is entirely logical that those with lower incomes value compensation and job security significantly more than their well-off counterparts. Those who need the money and job security more tend to value those factors more.

These findings contradict the stories about entitled Millennials who want autonomy, freedom and creativity and are not interested in compensation and traditional models of job security. In fact, the story is much simpler. People who make less money place more value on job security and income.

Group differences are a tricky subject, particularly when members of a group have little in common, except being born within a decade or two of one another. This research clearly shows there is substantially more variation within any generation than between. The minor generational differences that do exist can be easily explained by variations in employment and income status rather than being a component of any particular generation.

In answer to the question, ‘how do Millenials’ values differ from other generations?’ In short: they don’t.

Want to test your own work motivators and see how you compare to other people? Take the free five-minute test here, and get your results immediately.

Ian MacRae is co-author of High Potential: How to spot, manage and develop talented people at work (Bloomsbury, 2018) which explains how motivation and values affect potential in the workplace.

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