Generational Differences in the Workplace: Careers Aren’t What They Used to Be

Topic(s): strategic HR, work environment
Publication: Journal of Managerial Psychology
Article: How have careers changed? An investigation of changing career patterns across four generations
Authors: S.T. Lyons, L. Schweitzer, E.S.W. Ng
Reviewed by: Lia Engelsted

With the plethora of stories in the media about generational differences in the workplace, a new study provides evidence about what these generational changes may mean for employers. Given the demise of the traditional career path, employees’ career patterns have shifted over time. The current study (Lyons, Schweitzer, & Ng, 2015) analyzed data from the four generations currently in the workforce to provide a greater understanding of shifting career patterns, and how different generations are handling some of the changes that modern employees experience.


Over the 21st century, the labor market shifted from the traditional linear upward career progression within a single organization to more non-traditional arrangements. In the new age, employers no longer provide the stability and job security that they once did, and the current workforce is not as loyal to their employers, changing not only employers but occupations and career paths as well. Additionally, say the authors, careers are affected by downsizing and growing disruptions to work-life balance. As part of the new career perspective, workers today are shifting career paths dynamically, sometimes moving upward, laterally, and even downward. With the advancement of technology and globalization, organizations are becoming “flatter” and they require increased flexibility in the changing economy.

Career mobility includes all of the changes in job, organization, and occupation, as well as status changes. Using new measures to precisely examine career mobility, the authors analyzed a sample of 2,555 professionals in the Mature (born prior to 1946); Baby Boomer (1946-1964); Generation X (1965-1979) and Millennial (1980 or later) generations.

Past research did not typically consider that several different generations of employees may be in the workforce at one time. In order to examine generational differences in the workplace, researchers must account for the varying career and life stages of the different generations in the workforce. The authors provide evidence of the social changes that each generation experienced to have an effect on their career patterns. For example, the Mature generation (born before 1946) was a smaller cohort that benefited from economic growth. With promotions available, individuals from this generation built their legacies based on tenure and upward progression within a single organization.


As hypothesized, the authors found a trend of increased career mobility for each successive generation. Millennials had that the highest level of job and organizational mobility: they were twice as likely to change jobs and organizations as generation-Xers, three times as likely as the Boomers, and 4.5 times as likely as the Matures. Generation X had the next highest rate of job changes per year followed by Baby Boomers. The authors theorize that due to technology, globalization, and the need to respond to shifts in the economy, organizations are requiring that workers adapt and be flexible to change jobs.

While the rate of job mobility within an organization increased over the generations, the rate at which people leave organizations to take new jobs did not change much from generation to generation (with the Baby Boomers changing employers slightly more than other generations). In addition, the need for traditional career progression is still strong, with successive generations still desiring upward mobility within organizations.


The authors provide the following advice for human resource strategy:

  • To combat the high job mobility, provide short term benefits to attract and retain employees.
  • To appeal to the younger generations, provide shorter career milestones to appeal to their desire to progress quickly.
  • If upward mobility is not possible, provide opportunities such as job rotation, rehiring of former employees, or partnering with other organizations to appeal to employees’ pursuit of individualistic goals.

This advice will better prepare organizations to adapt and succeed in the ever-changing world of work.