Are young people’s work values changing?

Are young people’s work values changing? 2017-08-29T15:47:14+00:00

Are younger people less work oriented than older generations? Are they more sceptical about achieving a successful career and sustainable salary? If the answers to these questions are yes, then we might expect young people to be less responsive to EU and national policies aimed at integrating them in the labour market.

We set out to explore the difference in attitudes between different age cohorts in Europe. We used the term birth cohort because the concept of generation is too loosely defined; it can vary significantly over time and by country as well as being affected by differences in technology, politics and policy.

Using a simple but straightforward definition of work values borrowed from Smola-Sutton (2002) we sought to find out regarding different age cohorts:

  • How central work is as a part of their life and identity?
  • Would they work even if there was no financial pressure to do so?
  • And, how important are different extrinsic and intrinsic aspects of work: comparing having a ‘good income’, ‘security’ and ‘flexibility’ with having ‘interesting work’ and a job that is ‘useful for society’.

We did not find significant gaps between the birth cohorts regarding centrality of work, employment commitment, or extrinsic or intrinsic work values in evaluating a job.

The methodology and data

The basic problem in analysing generations stems from the fact that age, period and birth cohort are linearly interdependent; their effects cannot be simultaneously estimated using standard regression models. A possible solution to this identification problem is to use a hierarchical age-period-cohort (HAPC) regression model.

Our analysis is based on the pooled data of the World Values Survey/European Values Study (WVS/EVS), the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and the European Social Survey (ESS) between 1980 and 2010 (N = ca. 160 000).

To control for the changing composition along the basic socio-economic characteristics of subsequent generations in our multivariate models, we use the following control variables: gender, education, marital status, labour force status and type of settlement. Additionally, every model contains country-fixed effects to control for time-invariant country characteristics.

Main findings

Centrality of work

We found that the centrality of work is higher in the middle-age groups than among the younger or older ones. The interpretation of this inverted U-shape by age is rather straightforward: younger people are not yet, and older people are no longer, involved in income-generating activities. We also found a decreasing linear trend of the centrality of work by period. This fits well into the theory stating that post-modern values have become more important nowadays than modern values (including the ethos of hard work).

Our results suggest that work is less central for the birth cohort born between 1940 and 1959 compared to those cohorts born earlier or later; however, these differences are very small. This result may be interpreted as a rather weak generational effect. For those who entered the education system and the labour market in the 1960s and 1970s, intrinsic values became more important than the extrinsic aspects of life. However, this change was reversed rather quickly, and those who entered the labour market after the mid-1970s became increasingly extrinsically oriented in their attitudes to work.

Comparing EU15 and post-socialist countries, we found that the general trend of the centrality of work was similar in these two groups; however, in the post-socialist countries, the age and cohort differences were larger than in the EU15 countries. Cohort differences in the post-socialist countries might be explained by a tendency on the part of the younger cohorts to disentangle from state socialist doctrines and/or to have a growing fear of unemployment and/or impoverishment.

Employment commitment

There is no relevant period and cohort effect on employment commitment, but this does decrease with age. Age differences are in accordance with both the labour market career and the life-course concept of working capacity: younger people are more motivated and are in better physical condition than older people.


Our research findings indicate that generational differences in attitudes to work are a myth, even though these are often referred to in public debates and used in political discourses. The most important conclusion from our results from a policy point view is that our ‘search for gaps’ was futile; that is, we were unable to identify any relevant gap in attitudes between different age cohorts. Kowske et al. (2010) quite rightly summarised their findings by suggesting that instead of generational differences we should speak about ‘generational similarities’.

Our results imply that in contemporary Europe all generations follow a similar age trend; in other words, as the younger ones become older, their work values change similarly.

Policy-wise, the most important conclusion is that although birth cohort does not have a strong impact on work values, we detect differences in work values by age and period as well as between EU15 and post-socialist countries. For example,

  • The slow but steady decrease in the centrality of work by period suggests that, in the long run, work may lose its dominant position as the source of identity;
  • Employment policies are especially important for the youngest cohorts, where the level of commitment to employment is the highest.


Hajdu, Gábor, and Endre Sik. 2015. Searching for Gaps: Are Work Values of the Younger Generations Changing? STYLE Working Paper WP9.1 Searching for gaps: are work values of the younger generations changing?

Hajdu, Gábor, and Endre Sik. Forthcoming. ‘Are the Work Values of the Younger Generations Changing?’ In Youth Labor in Transition, edited by Jacqueline O’Reilly, Janine Leschke, Renate Ortlieb, Martin Seeleib-Kaiser and Paola Villa. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kowske, Brenda J., Rena Rasch and Jack Wiley. 2010. ‘Millennials’ (Lack of) Attitude Problem: An Empirical Examination of Generational Effects on Work Attitudes’. Journal of Business and Psychology 25 (2): 265–79. doi:10.1007/s10869-010-9171-8.

Smola, Karen Wey, and Charlotte D. Sutton. 2002. ‘Generational Differences: Revisiting Generational Work Values for the New Millennium’. Journal of Organizational Behavior 23 (4): 363–82. doi:10.1002/job.147.