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Workers of different generations

Generations defy expectations

Study of family-work balance reveals complexity behind the clichés

Contact: ​Jeff Johnston

Millennials are lazy, Generation Xers aren’t loyal to companies, baby boomers are technologically illiterate: Popular culture and media often stick generations with such broad stereotypes, but how many of these clichés are based in solid research?

Surprisingly few, according to Misty Bennett, an associate professor in Central Michigan University’s College of Business Administration.

Bennett is a part of a group of CMU researchers who set out to understand how people of different generations and stages of life balance work and family. 

“Our findings help break the myths that millennials don’t want to work, because they clearly do.” — Misty Bennett

The results of the study can help employers consider needs associated with different phases of life. These kinds of messages usually are tailored to perceptions of what different generations value — perceptions that, according to Bennett, don’t always hold up.

Bennett, in the department of management, and her research partners, Terry Beehr, from the department of psychology, and Lana Ivanitskaya, from the School of Health Sciences, published their conclusions in the Journal of Managerial Psychology. The report highlighted several findings:

  •  Baby boomers were most likely to report family interfering with work.
  • Generation X reported work interfering with family more than other generations.
  • Baby boomers placed family centrality higher on their priorities than other generations, while Millennials were highest in work centrality.
  • Employees with children ages 13-18 reported more instances of work interfering with family.
  • Employees with children under the age of 6 reported more instances of family interfering with work.

“The reality is that the demands we face at those different critical phases in life are different,” Bennett said. “If you have an infant at home or a child who just left for college, you have family demands, but they may pose different constraints. And we know stressful situations where we have lots of demands and little control over them, like when a child is sick, pose problems for us trying to balance the two areas of our life.”

The team surveyed millennials, Generation Xers and baby boomers on the importance of work or family to one’s sense of identity. In addition, the study analyzes how different circumstances such as being single or married with children can affect how people meet work and home duties.

The body of literature on conflict between work and family is large. Bennett has studied the subject since starting her graduate program at CMU in 2003. Looking at the conflict through both generational theory and life-cycle stage is a fresh approach.

Some results surprised researchers, who expected popular views — such as millennials not valuing work as much as other generations do — to hold up under scrutiny.

“This is where it becomes important to examine the life-cycle angle. I don’t know to what degree the phases of life affect them, but our findings help break the myths that millennials don’t want to work, because they clearly do,” Bennett said.

Bennett said she felt reassured not all the stereotypes stuck.

“There’s a quote by Socrates, ‘Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food and tyrannize their teachers.’ I tell my students that even in Socrates’ time, he was complaining about the younger generation,” Bennett said. “At some point we should ask: Is it just a cyclical effect that we’re always complaining about the younger generation? So really, it’s about age. That’s the biggest factor.”

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