Generational Differences in Personality and Motivation: Do They Exist and What are the Implications for the Workplace?

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Generational Differences in Personality and Motivation:
Do They Exist and what are the Implications for the Workplace?

Melissa Wong (
SHL, Level 17, 600 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC 3000 Australia

Elliroma Gardiner (
School of Psychology, University of Queensland, McElwain Building, St Lucia, QLD 4072 Australia

Whitney Lang (
School of Psychology, Deakin University, 1 Gheringhap Street, Geelong, VIC 3127 Australia

Leah Coulon (
SHL, Level 11, 500 Queen Street, Brisbane, QLD 4000 Australia


Building on previous research into generational differences, this exploratory study examined whether differences in personality and motivational drivers truly exist in the workplace across different generations. Using the Occupational Personality Questionnaire and the Motivation Questionnaire as measures of personality and motivational values respectively, the study examined cross-sectional differences in three groups of working Australian participants: Baby Boomers, Gen X’s and Gen Y’s. Results are not supportive of generational stereotypes that have been pervasive in the management literature and the media. Specifically, few meaningful differences were found between the three generations. Moreover, even when differences have been observed, these have related more to age rather than generational differences. More importantly, while the differences have been statistically significant, they were observed to be minimal in practical interpretation terms. This further emphasizes the importance of managing individuals by focusing on individual differences rather than relying on generational stereotypes.

There has been a recent proliferation in ‘popular’ literature focusing on the need to work with, engage, and manage Generation Y employees differently than Generation X or Baby Boomer employees (e.g. Howe, Strauss, & Matson, 2000; Huntley, 2006; Smola & Sutton, 2002). This is based on the notion that key differences exist in the work values and beliefs of employees from different generations, and that failure to address these differences can lead to conflict in the workplace, misunderstanding and miscommunication, lower employee productivity, poor employee wellbeing and reduced organisational citizenship behaviour (Adams, 2000; Bradford, 1993; Fyock, 1990; Jurkievicz, 2000; Kupperschmidt, 2000; Smola & Sutton, 2002; Yu & Miller, 2003). In contrast to this literature, Jorgensen (2003) questions whether the combination of Baby Boomers, Gen X’s and Gen Y’s values, likes and dislikes actually have the capacity to disturb common workforce strategies, consume resources and contribute to the wearing away of ‘generational cohesion’ in the workplace. Instead, he puts forward the argument that current knowledge around generational characteristics has predominantly arisen from the qualitative experiences of the authors, with findings lacking the necessary empirical rigour needed to base workplace strategies and practices on their conclusions alone. Given the changing age demographic of the Australian workforce (Hume, n.d.), it is now possible for up to four different generations of employees to be working together within one organisation. As such, it is increasingly important for us to better understand these generational differences, and determine if these differences truly exist. In light of this, this study focuses specifically on personality and motivation, and aims to explore whether personal preferences and motivational drivers differ across individuals from different generations in the Australian working population.

Reviewing the notion of ‘generations’

Kupperschmidt (2000) defines a generation as an identifiable group which shares years of birth and hence significant life events at critical stages of development. In general, while researchers differ slightly in the precise years of birth...
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