Article type and classification:
General paper – empirical research report: quantitative
Author 1: Dr Freda van der Walt Central University of Technology, Free State PO Box 1881, Welkom, 9459 Tel. 057 910 3617 Email: 1
Author 2: Ms N Ntomzodwa Caroline Zwede Central University of Technology, Free State PO Box 1881, Welkom, 9459 Tel. 057 910 3500 Email: 1
Work ethics of different generational cohorts in South Africa
Abstract Although generational differences have been studied in developed countires, not much information is available about generational cohorts and how they differ in terms of work ethics in developing countries. A cross-sectional study was conducted with a sample of 301 respondents from South Africa. Work ethics of three generational cohorts were measured, namely the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y. The main finding of this research was that statistically significant differences and similarities were found between the various generational cohorts in terms of work ethics facets. Statistically significant generational differences were indicated for hard work and delay of gratification.
Key words: Generational differences, work ethics, Generation Y, Generation X, The Baby Boomers, hard work, delay of gratification, ethics/morality.
The deterioration of ethical behaviour in South Africa is startling. Unethical behaviour, mainly in the form of corruption, through bribery, has reached “crisis proportions” in this country (Patel, 2013). Within this unethical society, employees and managers are required to make ethical decisions on various matters on a daily basis. This becomes increasingly difficult within an ecomomy that is nearing recession, placing additional burdens on employees. Employees are pressured for results, which often makes them cut corners, break rules, and engage in questionable practices (Robbins, Judge, Odendaal and Roodt, 2009: 16). Thus, it becomes gradually more difficult to make “correct” decisions, or to objectively assess what the implications of a decision may be, in an environment where unethical behaviour has become the norm, rather than the exception.
Ethical behaviour may be influenced by historical events, and diversity variables such as culture and age (Davis, 2009: 161). Unique to South Africa is the historical events that members of this society has been exposed to, in particular when moving from an era of apartheid to one of democratisation. Moreover, corresponding to global trends, South African workplaces are also becoming increasingly diverse. Workforces consist of employees with different ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, values, beliefs and ethnicities, to mention a few variables. Thus, it is possible that both historical events and diversity variables have contributed to the unethical behaviour of the South African workforce.
Because of the diverse nature of contemporary workforces, much attention has recently been given to generational differences in the workplace. In a study by Burke (cited by Cogin, 2012: 2268), 58% of human resource management practitioners reported conflict between younger employees and older employees, due to differences such as perceptions of work ethics, and aspects related to work-life balance. The ideological and perceptual differences which exist between generational cohorts lead to conflict and misunderstandings (Meriac, Woehr and Banister, 2010: 315). Consequently, organisational leaders need to be aware of these differences that exist between different generations, in order to prevent or manage conflict appropriately, and to reduce misunderstandings, as dysfunctional conflict and misunderstandings may potentially have a negative impact on organisational effectiveness (Van der Walt and Du Plessis, 2010: 3).
In order to move the South African society and workplaces therein forward, more emphasis should be placed on work ethics. Although previous international research has established that generations differ in terms of work ethics (Twenge, 2010: 201), there is a dearth of research findings in terms of work values for generational cohorts in developing countries. Thus, sufficient empirical studies have not yet been conducted to test this theory in the South African work environment.
The composition of the South African workforce is changing, and is becoming increasingly diverse (Robbins et al., 2009: 12; 2 Van der Walt and Du Plessis, 2010: 1). Hence, organisations need to comprehend that a different approach may be required to successfully attract new employees and to effectively manage and retain current human capital. Although considerable research is available on diversity management, there is a paucity of studies that focus on generational or age diversity (Van der Walt and Du Plessis, 2010: 1).Establishing whether different generations have different work ethics would assist organisations when formulating strategic human resource interventions, such as retention and procurement strategies. Therefore, the aim of the study was to identify the work ethics that are important to different generations in a developing country, and to establish whether significant differences exists between different generational cohorts in terms of work ethics. The nature of these similarities and differences are reported in this article.
The study is situated within the generational cohort theory which will be discussed in the next section. This will follow with a discussion regarding work values and well as the seven facets thereof which were measured in order to determine differences and similarities between generational cohorts in a developing country. The research methology of the study will be explained, after which the findings will be presented and discussed.
Generational cohort theory is regarded as a theory of social history which describes and elaborates on differences and changes in generational and public attitudes over time (Wolf, Carpenter and Qenani-Petrela, 2005: 186). Gilleard (2004: 108). Informed by the work of Mannheim, it underscores two elements that are pivotal to the concept of a generation, namely a shared location in historical time, and a distinctive awareness of said historical time, which is shaped by events and experiences that are characteristic of that time.
Generational cohorts refers to individuals from the same generation, exposed to the same external environment and events, which may potentially influence their behaviour and way of thinking (Napoli, 2014: 184). Research regarding generational cohorts is based on the premise that each generation experiences a communal distinctive combination of circumstances and environmental forces that are prevalent during their formative years, and that this combination of circumstances and environmental forces shape their behaviour patterns, distinguishing them from other generations (Bevan-Dye, 2012: 37). Therefore, the exact time span of the different generations varies according to country of origin as depicted in Table 1 (Codrington and Grant-Marshall, 2006: 19).
Table 1: Generational cohorts according to country
[insert Table 1 here]
Source: Codrington and Grant-Marshall (2006: 19)
Within the generational cohort theory, two perspectives are held, namely that a generation is seen as consistent regardless of different societies, and a generation underscores the differences which may potentially exist between generational cohorts due to the society in which it is cultivated. Turbulent life changes and/or important events that occur in a particular era can shape a cohort living at the time (Codrington and Grant-Marshall, 2006: 11). Furthermore, internalisation of the ideas characteristic of the time may result in stereotyping of members of that particular generational cohort. Table 2 provides a brief summary of the characteristics of the different generational cohorts (Gursoy, Maier and Chi, 2008: 451; 3 Robbins et al., 2009: 102; Roux, 2008: 20).
Table 2: Characteristics of the different generational cohorts
[insert Table 2 here]
Although cognisance is taken of the different generational cohorts as defined by the generational cohort theory, only three cohorts were included in the study; 1 the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y.
Work ethics encompasses attitudes and beliefs concerning work behaviour, and is a multidimensional construct reflected in behaviour (Miller, Woehr and Hudspeth, 2002: 453; Ravangard, Sajjadnia, Jafari, Shahsavan, Bahmaie and Bahadori, 2014: 3). Thus, employees’ work ethics may be regarded as the overall framework from which work values emanate, which, in turn, influences individuals’ behaviour at work. In the current study, work ethics was measured as consisting of seven facets; 4 self-reliance, morality, leisure, hard work, centrality of work, wasted time, and delay of gratification.
Self-reliance refers to striving for independence in daily work (Miller et al., 2002: 14), or being dependent on oneself, and not relying on others (Dwyer, 2012: 103). Van Ness, Melinsky, Buff and Seifert (2010: 25) reported statistical significant differences between students and workforce professionals, finding that students had stronger self-reliance than workforce professionals. Simons (2010:29) report that Generation X is self-reliant and individualistic, while Generation Y is described as self-inventive and individualistic.
Morality and ethics are referred to as one work ethics facet, believing in an existence that is just and moral. However, if one considers morality and ethics separately, morality refers to customs or manners that are usually applied to one’s behaviour, while ethics mainly has to do with an individual’s character (Chidi, Ogunyomi and Badejo, 2012: 117). 5 However, the two concepts are often used interchangeably referring to the manner in which people act or are expected to act (Van Ness et al., 2010: 14). Verschoor (2013:11) reports that Generation Y often perceive unethical behaviour as being ethical, which can lead to them interpreting this dimension of work ethics differently than other generational cohorts.
Leisure refers to pro-leisure attitudes and the belief in the importance of non-work activities, thus spending time relaxing (Miller et al., 2002:14), or spending time in personally meaningful and pleasurable activities (Chun, Lee, Kim and Heo, 2012: 440). Twenge (2010: 208) assert that several studies have indicated that all generations are more likely to value leisure, and less willing to work hard.
Hard work refers to belief in the virtue of hard work (Miller et al, 2002: 5 14), or that one can become a better person and achieve objectives through a commitment to the value and importance of work (Van Ness et al., 2010: 16). It seems that younger and older employees may have different perceptions of what comprises hard work, however, previously it was found that hard work is not as important to younger workers compared to older workers (Van Ness et al., 2010: 16). Tolbize (2008: 8) report generational differences in terms of hard work, indicating that Baby Boomers are workaholics, and Generation X will only work as hard as needed.
Centrality of work refers to one’s belief in work for work’s sake (Miller et al., 2002:14), or the degree of importance that woking has in the life of an individual at any given point in time (MOW, cited by Schreuder and Coetzee, 2011:6). In terms of work centrality and age, different results have been reported, some indicating no association between age and centrality of work, while others reported a relationship between the two concepts, finding that centrality of work increases with age (Van Ness et al., 2010:17). In an international study cited by Screuder and Coetzee (2011:6), it was found that when leisure time increases, centrality of work decreases. Twenge (2010:208) also assert that Generation X and Y rate work as less central to their lives, while leisure is rated higher.
Wasted time refers to attitudes and beliefs that reflects an active and productive use of time (Miller et al., 2002: 14), thus not wasting time on activities which will not result in the production of any valuable goods or services (Horman and Kenley, 2005: 52). 6 Van Ness et al. (2010: 5 18) assert that wasted time in this context should be considered as a continuum with one end representing a high commitment to time management and on the other end characterising a low commitment to time management. In terms of time management, Gursoy et al. (2008: 158), report that the Baby Boomers are committed to their work, and that they would rather work longer hours than leave work incomplete. Generation X prefers less demanding jobs with stable working hours, as they allow them to spend sufficient time with their families (Gursoy et al., 2008: 455). This generation appreciates opportunities to divide their time appropriately between work, family, and recreational activities, while Generation Y values flexibility in their work scheduling and work programmes (Van der Walt and Du Plessis, 2010: 4).
Delay of gratification refers to a future orientation and the postponement of rewards (Miller et al., 2002:14), or sacrificing short term rewards, in order to chase long-range objectives (Abd-El-Fattah and Al-Nabhani, 2012: 93). The information presented in Table 1 indicates that Generation Y values instant gratification. This is mainly because Generation Y was brought up in a time of technology advances and social media, giving them access to immediate, or instant, feedback and rewards. Scholars have also indicated that not only Generation Y values instant gratification, but that it is valued by all generational cohorts (Govitvatana, 2001: 11; Schultz and Schwepker, 2012: 35).
From the aforementioned discussion it is clear that generational cohorts differ in terms of work ethics dimension. Although it will be to an organisation’s advantage to develop employees in terms of dimensions such as hard work and wasted time, organisations cannot ensure ethical behaviour through the provision of training and development initiatives. However, it does seem important that organisations develop guidelines to assist employees to become more aware of ethical conduct. This will ensure that employees are aware of the basic principles and standards they are expected to abide by, as well as the boundaries of acceptable conduct (Mafunisa, 2008: 83). Moreover, an organisation’s reputation in terms of ethical behaviour will have an impact on the type of recruit that enters the workplace (Bergh, 2011: 247). It is assumed that ethical individuals will want to work for organisations that are ethical, and that ethical consumers will prefer to support ethical organisations.
3 A cross-sectional quantitative research design was employed. Information was collected once-off by means of a survey. Individuals were the unit of analysis, and the population parameter is working-age individuals who were working, or who wanted to work. The population for this study consisted of employees working at three different organisations in the Lejweleputswa district, as well as job seekers studying in the Faculty of Management Sciences at a university of technology in the same area. The convenience sampling method was used to select participants from the population.
3 Data was collected from the respondents by means of a structured questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of two sections, namely a biographical section, and a section containing questions to measure work ethics. The first section included five questions, relating to the respondents’ race, gender, age (to determine the respondent’s generational cohort), years of service with the current organisation, and highest academic qualification. 3 The information collected was used to describe the sample from which the data was collected.
7 In order to measure work ethics the Multidimensional Work Ethic Profile (MWEP) was used. The MWEP is a 65-item scale that was developed to “measure seven conceptually and distinct facets of the work ethic construct” (Miller et al., 2002: 1). 5 The seven constructs are identified as hard work, self-reliance, leisure, centrality of work, morality/ethics, delay of gratification, and wasted time (Miller et al., 2002: 12). Participants were requested to select the most appropriate option from a five-point Likert scale, with options ranging from “strongly agree” (1), to “neutral” (3), to “strongly disagree” (5). 5 Miller et al. (2002: 30) states that the MWEP is a reliable measure of overall work ethics and the dimensions thereof. A Cronbach’s alpha coefficient was determined to measure the reliability of the MWEP for the current sample. The reliability of the questionnaire 0.94, indicating very strong levels of reliability (Salkind, 2012:208).
A self-administered questionnaire was chosen as the data-collection tool, the reason being that this is an acceptable data-collection method to use when literate individuals are the unit of analysis in a study. Participants were given clear instructions to complete the questionnaire. In addition, each subsection started with a short overview of the content and the purpose of the subsection, to ensure that the respondents understood the subsection, and to enable them to appropriately respond to the questions posed.
3 The questionnaires were distributed to the sample, and the researcher collected the questionnaires within 14 days of distributing them. This allowed the respondents sufficient time to complete the questionnaire in their own time and at their own convenience. After completion, respondents were requested to place the completed questionnaires in a sealed envelope. 3 The researcher collected the questionnaires personally from the respondents at a central point. This ensured that the questionnaires were treated confidentially.
The final sample consisted of 301 respondents and varied in terms of sociodemographic variables. The employment status of the respondents was distributed almost evenly, with 170 (56.5%) of the respondents seeking work, and 131 (43.5%) currently employed. The gender distribution was skewed towards females accounting for 62.5% (n = 188) of the respondents, and 37.2% (n = 112) of the sample were males. The majority of the sample consisted of Black African respondents (n = 275; 91.4%), followed by whites (n = 17; 5.6%), Coloureds (n = 7; 8 2.3%), and Asian (n = 1, 0.3%).
With regard to age, the majority of respondents belonged to Generation Y (n = 155; 51.5%), followed by Generation X (n = 112; 37.2%), and the Baby Boomers (n = 34; 11.3%). Only one respondent indicated that they belonged to the Traditionalist category. Since the sample was drawn in an employment context, the Traditionalists would represent pensioners. Consequently, the respondent was not included in subsequent calculations. The majority of the respondents had 0 - 1 years of service (n = 133; 44.2%). With regard to educational attainment, the majority of respondents had a Grade 12 qualification (n = 189; 62.8%), followed by respondents that had a national diploma (n = 7; 23.3%), and those that had an honours or a bachelor’s degree (n = 23; 7.6%).
3 Data analysis The analysis of the responses was planned and directed by the researcher, and the statistical analysis was carried out by an independent research psychologist, using SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) version 20. Statistical analysis was performed by means of descriptive analysis, including frequencies, percentages, medians, means, and standard deviations. A Kolmogorov-Smirnov test was performed to assess the normality of the distribution (Pallant, 2011: 63). The results of this test indicate that the data was not normally distributed. Hence, non-parametric tests were used. As such, the Kruskal-Wallis test were executed to determine the influence of age (divided according to generational cohorts) on the dependent variable (i.e. work ethics).
The researcher approached organisations to participate in the research study. After permission was granted, the researcher ensured that participants were treated in an ethical manner. 3 In order to obtain informed consent from the participants, an introductory letter was attached to the questionnaire, explaining the purpose of the research project. Participants were informed that participation would be voluntary and anonymous, and that the information would be treated confidentially. The respondents were also assured that they had the right to withdraw from the study at any stage should they wish to do so.
Measures of central tendency, including the mean, the median, the standard deviation, and the maximum and minimum scores, for each generational cohort are depicted in Tables 3, starting with Generation Y.
Table 3: Measures of central tendency for Generation Y, with reference to work ethics facets
[insert Table 3 here]
Only two subscales; morality/ethics and wasted time, had scores below the median, indicating that they are not important to Generation Y. The work ethics subscales that recorded scores exceeding the median were self-reliance, leisure, hard work, centrality of work, and delay of gratification, meaning that they are perceived as important by this generation.
Table 4: Measures of central tendency for Generation X, with reference to work ethics facets [insert Table 4 here]
Similar to Generation Y, Generation X indicated that most of the work ethics subscales were perceived as important, except for the subscale of morality/ethics which is the only result below the median. Thus, Generation X regards the following work ethics as important: 4 self-reliance, leisure, hard work, work centrality, wasted time, and delay of gratification.
Table 5: Measures of central tendency for the Baby Boomer cohort, with reference to work ethics
[insert Table 5 here]
The Baby Boomer cohort indicated that three of the work ethics subscales had scores below the median; 7 morality/ethics and leisure. 9 The work ethics that are important to the Baby Boomers are self-reliance, hard work, wasted time, and delay of gratification.
From the above results, it would appear that the generational cohorts reported similarities and differences in their evaluation of the measured work ethics facets.In order to establish whether statistically significant differences exist among generational cohorts in terms of work ethics, a Kruskal-Wallis test was performed. The results of this test are depicted in Table 6.
Table 6: Kruskal-Wallis test results for work ethics as dependent variable and generational cohort as independent variable
[insert Table 6 here]
3 * p ≤ 0.05 ** p ≤ 0.01
9 In terms of self-reliance, morality/ethics, leisure, centrality of work and wasted time no significant differences were found between the different generational cohorts. Statistical significant differences were found for hard work and delay of gratification. In terms of hard work, the Baby Boomer cohort had the highest mean ranking (mean ranking = 194.51), while Generation X (mean ranking = 146.33) and Generation Y (mean ranking = 144.83) differed by only a small margin. Similarly, in terms of delay of gratification, the Baby Boomer cohort had the highest mean ranking (mean ranking = 194.68), followed by Generation X (mean ranking = 153.45) and Generation Y (mean ranking = 139.65).
The results regarding the work ethics of the different generational cohorts (see Table 1-3) show some similarities and some differences across the generational cohorts. Of the seven work ethics measured, the following are important to all generational cohorts: 7 self-reliance, hard work, and delay of gratification. With regard to self-reliance, the literature reports differences regarding the level of self-reliance of the different generational cohorts. For instance, Egri and Ralston (2004: 13) report that the Baby Boomers are self-reliant, while Martin et al. (cited in King, 2005: 6), state that Generation X is the first generation which shows high self-reliance. Therefore, the findings of the current study are mostly consistent with previous research findings regarding self-reliance. The finding that self-reliance is important to all generational cohorts included in this study is not surprising if one considers that South Africa is a capitalist country, and it is asserted that capitalism promoted individualism, in the sense of self-reliance (Tawney, cited in Schreuder and Coetzee, 2011: 7).
In terms of hard work, the literature indicates that the Baby Boomers are perceived as workaholics, who will stay at work until they have got the job done, and will thus spend more time at work than at home (Shragay and Tziner, 2011: 144). The results of the current study confirm that the Baby Boomers are hardworking. Contrary to the literature (see Codrington and Grant-Marshall, 2006; Hellekson, 2007), which perceives Generation X as “slackers”, the current study shows only a small difference between the Baby Boomers and Generation X with regard to the importance of hard work. In fact, the results indicate that the importance of hard work is nearly the same for both Generation X and Generation Y, and is only slightly higher for the Baby Boomers. This may be because the Baby Boomers are sometimes more service-orientated and success-driven than the other generational cohorts.
With regard to delay of gratification, the findings of the current study contradict previous research findings. Previous research findings indicate that all generational cohorts value instant gratification (Govitvatana, 2001: 11; Schultz and Schwepker, 2012: 35), whereas the results of the current study indicates that all generational cohorts value delay of gratification. One possible explanation for the difference in findings regarding this work ethics facet may be that all generational cohorts are becoming increasingly concerned about the future as a result of the country’s poor economic performance, and thus the importance of delay of gratification.
Three of the work ethics measured; leisure, centrality of work, and wasted time, produced different results for the different generational cohorts. 1 Leisure was found to be important to Generation X and Generation Y, but not to the Baby Boomers. These findings are consistent with previous research findings, which indicate that the Baby Boomers do not value leisure time as much as Generation X and Generation Y do (Schreuder and Coetzee, 2011: 15). One possible explanation could be that Generation X and Generation Y are concerned with creating work-life balance, and that work for them may be regarded as a means to enjoy leisure activities. Furthermore, both these generations are less concerned with wasted time. The Baby Boomers, on the other hand, live to work, and, therefore, to them any time spend on anything but work may be seen as wasted time. Spending time on leisure activities would thus not be seen as necessary to create meaning in their lives since they create meaning through their work.
Centrality of work was found to be important to Generation X and Generation Y. 3 This finding contradicts previous research findings. Fenzel (2013:ii) reported no significant differences between generations in terms of centrality of work, while Twenge (2010: 203) asserts that centrality of work is declining for all generations. One possible explanation for the finding of the current study could be that the Baby Boomers are now approaching (or have entered) their late life and career stage, and have possibly come to the realisation that work is not as important as they had previously believed. In addition, Generation X is at a career stage which is referred to as the “settling-down phase”, during which promotion and psychological success become increasingly important (Levinson et al., cited in Schreuder and Coetzee, 2011: 170). This implies that Generation X will possibly regard their work as their main priority at this stage, in order to progress in their careers.
The most important finding is that the work ethics facet labelled morality/ethics is less important to all generational cohorts. The finding of the current study with regard to morality/ethics generally confirm previous research findings. Twenge (2010: 204) asserts that most previous studies have found, in contrast with previous research findings, that Generation X and Generation Y express weaker work ethics. This finding is cause for concern, if one takes into consideration that ethics and morality are essential in order to make ethical decisions, and to uphold moral behaviour in the workplace (Bowen, 2005: 315; Bowden and Smythe, 2008: 19). Furthermore, it would seem that ethics and morality are especially important in a country such as South Africa, where societal and business leaders are increasingly engaging in unethical behaviour.
Generational profile of work ethics for a South African sample
A profile of work ethics in priority order for a South African sample is presented in Table 7.
Table 7: Work ethics profile of different generational cohorts working within the South African work environment
[insert Table 7 here]
Most previous studies regarding generational cohorts and work ethics have been conducted in first world countries. Unfortunately sufficient empirical studies have not been done regarding different generational cohorts which are currently present or about to enter organisations in developing countries, and therefore the study reported on generational differences in terms of work ethics for a South African sample.
The work ethics of the current sample differed from the work ethics which were identified as important for different generation cohorts in previous research studies in developed countries. However, the composition of the sample indicated that the majority of the sample were from African origin. The results of the study suggests differences between developed and developing countries as well as between generations from different descent (i.e. African and European) in terms of work ethics. Therefore, future research is suggested to determine the generational differences in terms of work ethics and other variables between European and African countries. It is further suggested that studies should investigate the perception of work ethics of Africans. One may also consider how Africans understand and conceptualise the construct of work ethics and its dimensions.
The most significant finding of the study was that ethics/morality was found not to be of importance to any of the generational cohorts included in the study. This is troublesome if one takes into consideration that South Africa has been stereotyped as a violent, aggressive, and disobedient society where unethical behaviour has become the norm rather than the exception. One wonders whether the moral character of South Africans has deteriorated to such an extent that ethical behaviour is not a concern any longer. This would place an increased burden on organisations wishing to establish a strong ethical organisational culture. Adding to this, ethics/morality cannot be developed through training interventions, and organisations may find it challenging to change the unethical behaviour of their employees. Organisations need to mindfully consider creating a strong ethical organisational culture which is lived by the organisational leaders in order to create more awareness of ethical behaviour.
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