Why Age Matters in the Work Preferences of Public Employees: A Comparison of Three Age-Related Explanations

By Bright, Leonard | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview
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Why Age Matters in the Work Preferences of Public Employees: A Comparison of Three Age-Related Explanations


Bright, Leonard, Public Personnel Management


Age diversity is a major issue in the American public sector workplace. This is most evident in the federal government where large numbers of public employees are reaching retirement age. Between 2000 and 2004, 239,881 public employees retired from the federal government. (1) The United States Office of Personnel Management projects that significantly more employees will retire in the coming years at an average rate of 52,124 per year. In light of these figures and facts, leaders of public organizations must grapple with the dilemma of retaining and motivating highly experienced and skilled older employees who are transitioning out of the workplace, while at the same time remaining attractive to generally lesser experienced and skilled younger employees who are entering into the workplace. The key to this conundrum is to foster work opportunities that are desirable to public employees of all ages. This is important because the opportunities employees receive will affect their work motivation. Consequently, employees who receive desirable opportunities will be motivated to accomplish organizational goals. (2)

Unfortunately, fostering opportunities that are desirable to all employees is difficult to achieve for most public organizations, especially since older and younger public employees want different work opportunities. (3) Public managers must first understand why age influences the work preferences of public employees before effective motivational strategies are developed. Regrettably, there is little agreement among scholars of practitioners as to the reasons why older and younger employees desire different work opportunities. There are a number of explanations for these age differences, such as generational differences, unequal access to desirable opportunities, and socialization experiences in public organizations. However, no study was found that comprehensively explored this subject in the field of public administration at the time this article was written.

The purpose of this study is to compare the relationships that generational-cohort differences, job level, and organizational socialization have to the work preferences of public employees from a large county jurisdiction in Oregon. This study seeks to improve our understanding of why age matters in the work preferences of public employees by identifying the best explanation. To accomplish this goal, this paper will begin by reviewing a body of literature that establishes that age differences do indeed exist in the work preferences of public employees. This review will also explore three perspectives that are potential explanations for why age matters, and the implications they have for organizations. After this discussion, the research question will be explored. Next, the strategies used to collect the data to answer the research question will be outlined. Later, the findings of this study will be examined. This paper will conclude with a discussion of the implications and areas of future research posed by this study.

Literature Review

Age & Work Preferences

A small body of research has investigated the relationship between age and the work preferences of public employees. (4) Predictably, scholars have found that older and younger employees desire different work opportunities, such as job flexibility, career advancement, professional development, and monetary compensation. For example, most studies have found that older employees desire job flexibility, job security, and monetary compensation more than younger employees. (5) Holley, Field, and Holley (6) asked a group of paraprofessionals what they considered the most when evaluating employment opportunities. These scholars found that older paraprofessionals considered wages and the job security of employment opportunities significantly more than younger paraprofessionals. (7) These findings are consistent with studies in the general literature that found that as the age of employees increased their desires for security, fringe benefits, and flexible work hours increased.

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