Generation X and the Public Employee

By Jurkiewicz, Carole L. | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Generation X and the Public Employee


Jurkiewicz, Carole L., Public Personnel Management


This cross-sectional study reports the work-related differences and similarities of 241 Generation X and Baby Boomer employees in the public sector. A more homogeneous pattern of what employees want across age cohorts emerges, contrary to the literature and stereotypes on generational differences. Surprising levels of similarity were found between GenXers and Boomers, with the three significant areas of difference focused on issues of personal growth. The implications for recruiting, retention, motivation, training, and human resource processes are discussed.

The top personnel management priorities for senior administrators today focus on recruiting/retention, motivation, training, work ethic, and change.[1] The focal point of this attention transcends divisions of race, religion, and gender, concentrating instead on the cohort known as Generation X.[2] Members of this cohort, born between 1963 and 1981, comprise 20% of the U.S. workforce,[3] and 32.4% of the public and nonprofit sector workforce.[4] Whether Generation X is the source of these personnel challenges is a matter of debate, but there is evidence that traditional human resource mechanisms are not effective with today's public workforce, and that managers are seeking to forestall the decline with a variety of new human resource initiatives intended to inspire this new generation of workers.[5] These human resource initiatives, collectively said to occupy 68% of a manager's time,[6] are especially costly for the public sector,[7] and are generally based upon assumptions and stereotypes of what it is that 'GenXers,' as members of this cohort are referred, want from their jobs.[8] Even those strategy-minded managers who wish to ground their initiatives in empirical evidence find that measurements of the success of such programs is difficult, at best.[9] An empirical, broad-based study of what GenXers want from jobs in the public sector is essential to those managers looking to attract qualified applicants and enhance organizational performance. This study specifically addresses that need.

Generation X and the Work Ethic

Foremost in the minds of many managers is the perceived erosion of the work ethic, a widely reported decline in the value and importance of work as evidenced in the attitudes and behaviors of this young generation.[10] From the proclamations of profitable diligence set forth in 1730,[11] which represented the first significant discontinuity in work values away from the notion of steadfastly pursuing one's vocation for the glory of God,[12] and toward the end of personal advancement, the work ethic in the U.S. has been traditionally viewed as a crystallization of faith, loyalty, and fortitude. It is said that the great public and private institutions that evolved in the U.S. were germinated in the richness of the American work ethic, and led to the perceived supremacy of our endeavors in the eyes of those around the world. With the adoption of Scientific Management as a tool of administration, a noticeable decline in intrinsic employee motivation was documented, which subsequently introduced an era of extrinsic manipulations to elevate the work ethic back to its zenith.[13] Viewed by some as a humanitarian effort to make work more pleasant, the extrinsic manipulations were in actuality an attempt to increase productivity by treating employees as means rather than as ends.[14] From the welfare capitalism of the early 1900s through the human relations movement and participative management,[15] the work ethic remained relatively stable.[16] A noticeable shift in attitudes toward work occurred in the mid-1970s when adults were increasingly concerned with personal growth and happiness and less concerned with defining themselves by their organizational affiliation.[17] This shift of emphasis from work to self has continued to increase,[18] and is seen as resultant of the empowerment initiatives implemented earlier in the century, during which employees realized their worth as individuals separate from subjugation of self to the organization. …

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