Gen Y (not) more willing to switch employers than older generations

Many myths surround „Generation Y“, the generation of birth cohorts 1980 to 2000, approximately. Other common terms are “Millennials“, „Nexters“, or „Generation Me”. Implicit in these terms are quite often negative ascriptions. Thus, a higher willingness to switch jobs and employers is imputed to „Gen Y“: Representatives of Gen Y are more self-focused and more demanding, they are not easily satisfied, expect discretion and more often ask for the “Y” (“why”) than their predecessors. What happens if their expectations are not met? They switch to an employer which is able to better accommodate their preferences (Zeit Online/ Bund, Heuser, & Kunze, 11.03.2014). In short: Compared to preceding generations, namely „Generation X” (birth cohorts 1966 to 1979, approximately) and the Baby Boomers (post-war birth cohorts up to 1965, approximately), Gen Y is said to be less loyal and to show less commitment towards their employer (cf. SHRM Online/ Kathy Gurchiek, 11.10.2009).

As evident as these assumptions might appear, research cannot provide a general answer on the question of a higher willingness to switch jobs and employers among representatives of Gen Y and the question of intergenerational differences in work-related values, attitudes and preferences in general. The reason lies within the so-called “age-period-cohort-confounding”: No single research design allows for simultaneously disentangling generation-/ cohort effects (differences tracing back to generational affiliation), age-/ life-cycle effects (differences tracing back to age), as well as period effects (differences tracing back to historical context). Merely age and generation effects can be disentangled from each other. First, by longitudinal/ panel studies, which analyze repeated observations of one and the same group of individuals at several successive points in time. Second, by so-called time lag-studies, which analyze observations of different generations at one and the same age.

Still, period effects cannot be separated: A 20 years old Baby Boomer (anno 1980) grew up in a different historical context than a 20 years old representative of Gen Y (anno 2010). Indeed, precisely this is regarded as an important approach towards explaining intergenerational differences (Lyons & Kuron, 2014): Commonly shared experiences within the same historical context (e.g., the German reunification or 9/11) define the belonging to a generation above and beyond the birth date and ultimately determine values, attitudes, and preferences, which are formed during childhood and adolescence (cf. Dencker et al., 2008). On the other hand, the economic context, in which generations experience(d) the start of their career in their respective 20s/ 30s (the current age of Gen Y), differs. Hence, period effects as (partial) causes of perceived intergenerational differences can never be ruled out completely.

Because of the time and effort required for longitudinal and time lag-studies, they are rather scarce. Yet, the research designs of the two longitudinal/ time lag-studies currently available are convincing:

A study by Kowske et al. (2010) provides the most reliable evidence up-to-date: Kowske and colleagues observe a trend towards shorter organizational tenure (controlling for age), but no intergenerational differences in turnover intention (2010: 275). Given that generational affiliation merely explains approximately 1-2% of variance in work-related attitudes even for those attitudes which differ significantly between generations (turnover intention: only .08%), Kowske and colleagues arrive at the conclusion that “job hopping” is an individual rather than generation-specific phenomenon (2010: 275).

Based on time lag-data (nationally representative sample of 17-18 years old US-High School pupils in 1976, 1991, and 2006 with 16,000 observations in total), Twenge et al. (2010) even find evidence for an averaged higher (!) preference to stay in the same job for most of one´s working life among representatives of Gen X and Gen Y in comparison to Baby Boomers. Between Gen X and Gen Y, however, no significant difference could be observed. Judging upon the practical significance is left to the reader: While 55.8% of Baby Boomers (17-18 years old pupils in 1976) expressed agreement (for the most part) to the statement „I would like to stay in the same job for most of my adult life“, the corresponding fraction among representatives of Gen X and Gen Y is 61.9% and 60.4%, respectively. Especially measures of work-related values and attitudes at an early stage in the life cycle (pre workforce entry) are regarded as good indicators, because they have not been influenced by different experiences and ageing processes yet (Twenge et al., 2010). Furthermore, research assumes that values and attitudes are primarily formed in childhood and adolescence and from then on remain temporally stable at least up to early adulthood (cf. Low et al., 2005).

But there is also evidence for more frequent job and employer changes among representatives of Gen Y. As an example, based on a sample of more than 2,500 Canadian managers and professionals, Lyons et al. (2015) show that Gen Y-employees on average experienced more job and employer changes per year over the course of their previous career compared to representatives of Gen X and Baby Boomers. In addition, representatives of Gen X and Gen Y more frequently than Baby Boomers also change employers when changing their job. However, this study cannot rule out the possibility that average mobility rates decline with age, because job/ employer changes tend to be concentrated in early stages of careers, so that intergenerational differences are overestimated to that effect. As with other cross-sectional studies (e.g., Becton et al., 2014), due to the confounding of age and generation effects, a clear conclusion with respect to intergenerational differences is not possible. The risk consists in that cross-sectional results overestimate actual intergenerational differences (to an unknown extent).

In conclusion, it has to be asserted that unequivocal empirical evidence concerning the question whether Gen Y is more inclined to (voluntarily) switching jobs and employers compared to preceding generations does not exist (yet). However, the study by Kowske et al. (2010) demonstrates that turnover is a primarily individual phenomenon so that intergenerational differences can be expected to be overestimated in practice.


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