Are younger feds happier at work than older feds?

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This topic contains 27 replies, has 14 voices, and was last updated by  Mark Hammer 8 years, 4 months ago.

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  • #140910

    Allison Primack

    According to an article in the Federal Times, this is apparently the case. Some claim that these younger workers are simply in a “honeymoon phase”, whereas others believe that overall these workers are just happier with their supervisors and positions as a whole.

    Check out the full article here

    In your experience, do you think this is true? If so, why?

  • #140964

    Mark Hammer

    Yes they are, and I’ve been looking at that since 1999. Every cycle that we conduct our pan-Canadian-government federal employee survey, recent hires are more positive. And you folks get it too. You can look at the most recent U.S. federal data here:… Every question is broken out be a number of variables, including how long you’ve been in the public service, and how long you’ve been in the current organization. In general, after a few years in the game and in a given organization, you see the positive responses drop by about 5% or more, and kind of level off from there.

    Why? I have a theory (when don’t I have a theory?) One of the more powerful models of perceived fairness and justice proposes what is called “referent cognitions” (Google it with “referent cognitions Folger”) as a basis for judging whether the outcomes, the extent to which formal procedures were adhered to, and the manner in which one was treated, compare favourably to alternate plausible realities. That’s the long way of saying “they coulda done this, but they did that”. It’s a simplification of an elegant theory, but when people judge the circumstances and/or outcomes they faced/received as less desirable than what they could have plausibly also encountered (because people just like them in circumstances just like theirs had a better outcome), then they judge their current outcome/circumstance as less fair.

    If your supervisor says “I would have liked to send you on that training course, but we got stuck with this lousy budget this year, and I’m sorry to say there’s just no slack. Hopefully next year.”, AND you have no other comparable outcome to use as a point of reference, then you may grumble about the outcome, but you’ll feel you were treated fairly. But what if peers in your work unit who don’t seem to have any known priority over you get sent for training? Is THAT fair, and are you going to be placated by what the manager says? Not likely.

    Where am I going with this? One of the things that accrues with organizational tenure is more knowledge about alternative outcomes within the organization. That is, the person with 1 year of service has fewer “they could haves..” in their knowledge base than the person with 5 years of tenure. The result is that the longer the person is in the organization, the easier it is for them to summon alternate outcomes that are equally plausible but more desirable than what happened to them. The odds of something being taken at face value and perceived as fair drop once you know enough about where you work. It could be the best place to work in the world, but you can’t help knowing that a decision could have been rendered much more favourably for you. Even if what you are imagining is wholly unrealistic, you can’t help imagining it. Time and experience just makes employees less likely to think they’ve been fairly treated, hence harder to please.

    That may well be the basis of a great many “honeymoon effects”. It’s not that they now “see things for what they truly are”, but rather they now can’t stop seeing things in comparison to other things.

    There may also be some basis to suggesting that newbies are also a little happier because they have a job. But like I say, we’ve been seeing this since 1999, and its there whether employment figures are high or low.

    The interesting twist to this is that when governments, agencies, or organizations conduct employee surveys, the overall results will move up or down with the proportion of respondents that are recent hires. We went from 12% to 19% and back to 12% recent hires in the employee survey data set, and the results went a few percentage points up and then back down again. Folks upstairs thought it was management practices, but it was really just the tenure composition of the respondents.

    Make sense?

  • #140962

    So it’s not just young people, but new hires of any age? The average new hire in US is 33 years old….

  • #140960

    Daniel Crystal

    I work with a lot of interns, and many of them are driven by a desire to make the government better. But they also aren’t usually tied down with a mortgage, family, etc., which means the cold, hard realities of adulthood haven’t kicked in yet. Finances can make people stick with a job they don’t like, because somebody needs to keep the lights on. It’s also hard to jump from a bad-fit job if you’re anchored to one particular geographic location; a problem many of the younger workers don’t have.

  • #140958

    Mark Hammer

    I suspect so. Young and old alike have “fairness honeymoons”, where everything they encounter within their new organization seems decent and fair.

    I don’t have access to the raw data, and what is posted doesn’t permit disaggregating effects, but I think it is fairly safe to assume that when we see the same trends observed by PS tenure repeated by agency tenure, some of that is folks who have been working for government for a while and switched over to another agency. That is, you don’t HAVE to be 25 and i your first job fresh out of undergrad to think everything’s peachy keen.

    At the same time, would someone who moves to a new position in agency X after 8 years in agency Y be identical in outlook to a 25 year-old getting their first federal job out of undergrad? I suspect there would probably be a wee bit of residual “federal cynicism” to carry over, but without any extensive experience in agency X, they’d probably cut X more slack than someone who has been in government at agency X for that same 8 year period.

    But I think your instincts to wonder about that are correct. It’s something that merits well-controlled empirical test.

  • #140956

    philip goldberg

    not happyer we are just gromper

  • #140954

    Steve Ressler

    Wonder if someone has a correlation with marriage. Do newlyweds poll happier w/ their marriage than those w/ 10 years of marriage?

    I think the key with jobs is the “doom loop” – at a certain point one has been at their job long enough that they are good at. But at some point they are good at it and bored with it and if they stay stagnant, they become unhappy and bored.

    Key is the Dylan line “he who is not being born is busy dying”

  • #140952

    Jack Shaw

    Well, it is a different world. It’s always exciting being on the ground floor of anything. When you’re young you see only possibilities, and when you’re older you see the frustrations of getting others to listen. Older workers are often a threat to management, while younger workers are not.

    Is it a honeymoon? Perhaps, but we do appreciate people who are more like us. Being young makes your ideas suspect and creative (if they haven’t been tried before) and older workers feel a threat. After a time, the threat seems less obvious and sometimes goes underground. Being young does have a grace period. Take advantage of it. Use it to show initiative, interest, enthusiasm and passion when it will be received and appreciated by others. There is no downside that I can see.

  • #140950

    Mark Hammer

    Thinking this over a bit more, I think one needs to distinguish between several different lenses to look at this through.

    One is certainly what the role of employment is for people of different ages. That is, in a connotative sense, what the job means to them at that point in their life. Certainly, for many younger people, a job is a sort of achievement, attainment, goal, whereas for those who have been in the workforce for a while, a job may have a different meaning. It may be less an achievement than something which is easily replaced with somethng else. My older son just scored his first “real” job after graduating in civil engineering, and he couldn’t be happier. He indicated to me that it was kind of scary being treated as a professional peer. In my own case, I could be doing a thousand other things; my job is no longer any sort of achievement.

    For younger workers, particularly those with a school-derived debt load to address, a job implies a kind of fiscal relief. They’re happy to have a way to tackle that debt. Mature workers may view the role of work vis-a-vis finances in a different way. And, of course, as so many before me have noted, at a certain point, in a society that presumes the institution of retirement, at a certain point you start counting down, and perhaps becoming impatient about progress towards that magic date.

    Another lens is certainly differences i what they experience. Younger workers, being newer workers, are more likely to be “tested out” on a variety of tasks and roles, where older workers may well have found, or been assigned, or simply tripped and stumbled, into a niche that is now theirs. In that sense, the “honeymoon” analogy may be most apropos. After all, a honeymoon is traditionally a set of circumstances that are optimized for a couple to experience physical and emotional intimacy. They get time alone, they go crazy now that they are allowed to “make sexy time” (thank you Borat!). In other words, the honeymoon period is happier because, in the purest sense, its content and circumstances are different. My son is thrilled every time they give him something new and different to do. And of course, he is just getting to know the various people in his organization, many of whom were hired around the same time as him.

    But as my earlier lengthy post indicated, I think that younger people who are newer to the world of work, as well as those who may not be quite as young but are new to an organization, may experience the same objective reality differently than those who have been working in that place for a longer period of time.

    I don’t see any of these lenses as in competition with each other. Rather, they all play a role in shaping what we see attitudinally and behaviourally from younger and older workers with greater and lesser amounts of tenure.

  • #140948

    Erica Bakota

    It sounds to me that the more experience employees have as a fed, the less positive their responses become. This does not reflect particularly well on government employment. It’s true, though, that one could experience a “fairness honeymoon” anywhere. Another issue I see is lack of younger feds at my agency. I work in the Agricultural Research Service, and the youngest person besides me is 9 years my senior. I would like to see the federal government recruit and retain more young talent; otherwise, when the baby boomers retire, the work force will thin out significantly here.

  • #140946


    I would love to see a similar study done at the local government level.

  • #140944

    Jeff S

    The new hires come in ready to change the world. Then they run into cold hard reality that the older people in charge will not change. If the youngsters were to stay till the older lot retires you would have much happier federal employees.

  • #140942

    Mark Hammer

    And what makes you think those older employees were NOT “new hires ready to change the world” 10 years ago?

  • #140940

    Jack Shaw

    I answered this question earlier, but I’ve seen posts since then.

    The simple answer to the question is: yes, there is a honeymoon phase, but the more complicated question is how do we make it last longer. Maybe what we need to do is look at things that affirm and reward passion and fresh ideas.

    Young people as a rule are a more positive lot. They aren’t as cynical and dispassionate as their older peers, but that is something we face with the innocence of the young. Children, regardless of their lot in life, try to be happy regardless of circumstances–even the most dire. Ready with smiles for anyone who affirms that they have done something right, or even exist. Should it be any different with young workers. For those of us who have been around awhile, reality makes us more careful and thoughtful, which can be thought of as unresponsive to change and new ideas. We should smile at them more and let them know their passion is appreciated and their ideas important–and mean it. We worry about losing our jobs to our youth, but that is exactly what we want.

    Skepticism and resistance to change seems to characterize getting older. My parents became more conservative to put it mildly. The parents I remember as a kid who were so liberal about life and how other people lived their lives now focused on themselves. Is it a mortality issue? We know we are going to die so we hold on to our “closest” selves–our identity.

    Our minds seem to narrow in response to age unless we keep exercising our willingness to see the positive attributes of the new. Perhaps that’s too philosophical. I remember being passionate about my job, my work and it was exciting. I was doing something worthwhile. I had taken the job originally as a “roof” job–something to keep a roof over my head while I wrote the Great American novel, but I fell in love with my work. In the end before retirement, I felt the same way about my work, but I had tired of my passionate responses falling on deaf ears because someone didn’t want to bother or the system made it impossible.

    This is why mentoring and leadership is so important. Mentoring to give them the courage to continue on the path. Leadership all along the way to learn how to direct that passion and push the new ideas to a positive conclusion–and the realization being theirs (the young) if something doesn’t work.

  • #140938

    Julie Chase

    Younger feds are “happier” just to get a fed job in this economy, especially when there are groups out there who are trying to stop them due to vet preference. Yeah, they are happy for awhile. All the wide eyed innovation will soon come to a screeching halt when they say, “Well, I think it’s a great idea and it will certainly streamline the process/production/output/customer service.” And the answer comes back, “XXX YYY para 2. section 4, item a, reads clearly that you can’t do that.” The young millenial, ever defiant says, “Well, ok, then, show me the order/bulletin/publication/SOP that says that.” Response is, “oh, I can’t do that, it’s classified.”

    I was a newbie to gov service in my mid 40’s. I learned real quick, that a paper tiger cannot be eliminated, period. Get used to using alot of paper. Technology from the late 80’s, early 90’s is the norm (unless you are in DC, then the sky is the limit). If you are in the finance end of gov service, procurement, card holder, et al. This time of year, you better be at your desk unless you are in traction, because the Gov Buy Sweepstakes is off and running. As a newbie, I said, “Gee, why don’t they (govt) give out the money little by little each month so we all don’t call our contracting/procurement office, our finance office bad names?” Well, it’s always been done this way, if you don’t spend it, you get less next year. Ok, I’m still scratching my head on that one.

    The young gov workers come in and say, “You only have IE 7 and are using Windows XP? Why can’t we have Chrome or Firefox?” “What do you mean you “just got” Office 2007?” “Do you know how old this computer is on my desk?” “Cargo khaki pants are office casual and they’re supposed to be wrinkled.” “I’ve already signed that and you want how many copies?” “I tried to pdf this document and realized I don’t have ADOBE Professional, why is that?” “This network is slower than my grandma’s dial up!” “My mailbox is full already?” “Whadya mean NO THUMB DRIVES?!”

    Then their student loan bill comes in and they quiet right down. Welcome to the machine.

    <these are my experiences only and do not speak for the whole of fed gov work. Although similiar stories can be found in other fed organizations>

  • #140936

    Jeff S

    I don’t the issue in todays world this generation does not hang around long enough to get in make changes and become happier.

  • #140934

    Carol Davison

    Julie, according to President Lincoln, veterans preference was desired to care for “him who shall lhave borne the battle, his widow and his orphan.” Since 9-11 we have twice as many disabled veterans as we did before. It was not designed to stop anyone from being employed. There are plenty of federal jobs out there.

  • #140932

    Carol Davison

    I wonder if younger feds are happier at work because they are required to be trained, and probably can be promoted on merit (“anyone can make GS-7), etc. But as you move up the pyramid, good assignments, training, opportunity, promotion, etc. becomes harder and more political.

  • #140930

    Mark Hammer

    Your post makes me grin. It is a surprisingly international description. I can assure you we get the same thing here in Canada.

    I have an abiding interest in the research on both “public service motivation'” and “employee engagement”. In recent e-mail conversations with researchers in those areas, I’ve raised the notion that the contrast between what new public servants expect, and what they encounter, can be a powerful determinant of their attitudes and especially the often rapid dissipation of their energy. It represents a very fertile area for research.

    I am pleased that the public sector attracts young people full of “piss and vinegar”, ready to transform the world. We need them. All governments need them, and God bless them for being there in such helpful numbers. Unfortunately, the reality is that there is a LOT of waiting around, form-filling, and other obstacles to the sorts of immediate triumphs over the social/political/economic/environmental issues that the new recruit was expecting. I still think there is a tenure effect that is generic to all organizations, as I’ve outlined earlier, but I think that for some folks there is also a contrast effect, where their expectations of what they’d be able to do once inside the machine, and the actual speed of operation of the machine, come into conflict.

    For the first while, a newer younger employee may discount many things as anomalies, flukes, exceptions, temporary obstacles. Eventually, they may begin to think, “No, this is actually how it really works.”, and the contrast between that perception and what they expected when they signed up, may result in demotivation, and disengagement, depending on the magnitude of the contrast, and the extent of letdown. It bears noting that a great many younger and older people want nothing more from their public service employment than a steady generous paycheck, so don’t assume the demotivating contrast exists for all new employees.

    That is not to suggest the kids whose expectations were punitively high were somehow lied to by recruiters or ads, or that nothing much of any use goes on in government. There IS ample opportunity to do wonderful things and make progress for the people that you can be proud of. But it doesn’t happen at the pace or with the consistency one might have expected. Just like marriage isn’t all mind-blowing guilt-free sex, car ownership isn’t just driving down the highway with the wind in your hair, and parenthood isn’t just hugs and “I love you, daddy”, public service work has warts too.

  • #140928

    Spanky Frost

    Well, I also agree that younger feds are more happier for several reasons. But when I was a young fed beginning my civilian career in the 80’s and even some of the early 90’s, it was very difficult to get promoted to senior positions. The managament always seemed to perview a few years experience as “not enough”. The folks always landing the GS11 thru 14 positions had 20 or 30 years experience and nearly had stories of life in the feds during the great depression… lol. That’s exaggerating, but us younger, degreed folks were always noobies. Didn’t know nothing and won’t go anywhere for many years. Back then it was not unusual to take 5 or 10 years to go from a GS05 to a GS07. From my personal perspective, the intern program back then was fixed for the good ole boy club (not what you knew, who you knew). Then came the Gramm-Ruddman cuts and the Ronnie “hate the feds” Reagan and freezes. So it took many of us older workers 15 to 20 plus years to finally acquire a senior position (GS-13/14/15).

    But from what I have been witnessing throughout the DoD the last decade is… experience is not measured anymore. 3 to 5 years is as good as 20 years experience. I’ve seen new employees and especially interns come into the fed govt… within 3 to 5 years many are GS-13/14 and I have even seen a few acquire GS-15 positions in that time… I do regret seeing alot of new managment with a different perspect of promoting and hiring. The tenure and long term experience does not matter anymore. I’ve had some younger applicants, many years less experience than myself be selected over me. That was just unheard of years ago… now it is just common. It’s easy to select a nice young smiley face step up for promotion than a wrinkled grey hair tired-looking person. Sure it is supposed to be prohibited, but try to prove it…

  • #140926

    This is a differentresult than what was reported in a study done by HR Magazine (August 2011 issue) where younger workers are the most unhappy at thier jobs & most likely to be looking for the next one. However the study they did was NOT specific to Government employees. It is an interesting anomoly though – why the difference? I can only assume it is because people who go into government work go into it for very specific reasons, they want to change the world.

    The article here talks about the 3 year mark (as a point where satisfaction drops), interestingly my statistics which I’ve tracked in detail for the last 4 years show a trend to leave before year three begins but I am in local governement. What will be interesting in the next few years for us is to see how retirement vesting plays into retention. I am in Iowa and the retirement vesting is changing next fiscal year from being fully vested at 4 years to a 7 year vestment. I think turnover will increase as 7 years seems like forever when you are unhappy and maybe 4 you can tough out. Once people are vested retention increases, people start seeing their job as “home” plus once you hit 5 years and start accruing vaction faster…well that is a huge retention tool.

  • #140924

    Mark Hammer

    I’m interested. Do you remember which author or title that was? I’m looking at the table of contents right now and nothing is jumping out at me, unless it is the Grossman article.

    As for when people leave, it IS the case that turnover risk declines with tenure. People may well have more accumulated reasons to grumble about their job or boss, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t moulded their lives around that job over time, building important friendships with co-workers, feeling a sense of personal commitment to certain projects or initiatives, working out the itinerary for dropping the kids off at daycare and picking them up, parking, shopping routines, etc. You are correct that one’s investment in the pension plan, or health plan can play an important role, but even within large organizations (like governments) where there is no risk to pension and health coverage moving across the organization, people with less tenure move around more.

    In my own work, I inserted a question in our staffing surveys sent out to 92k people asking how many other things they were waiting to hear on when they applied for position X (they get to tell us about one specific competition). What you see is that the number of concurrent applications declines with age and tenure. In our national federal employee survey, about 160k federal employees responded to a question that asked them how fair competitons were, that they participated in during the preceding 3 years. We treat the proportion of folks who say “Not applicable” as a proxy for whether they pursued anything or not. And you can see that after about 10 years, people are less likely to apply to anything, tending to stay put. Part of it is because, as noted, they’ve moulded their lives around the job and feel a sense of personal investment in it. But another part is that they have taken some time to consider what’s right for them, and tend to pick their job aspirations more carefully, rather than wallpapering the organization with their resumé. And some just know when they’ve reached the ceiling, and stay there.

    There are exceptions. We’ve experienced a lot of retirements so all these senior level positions have become available to folks in management and HR. But as those positions get filled and a bunch of folks all move up a level, it will settle down and traditional patterns of movement will re-emerge.

  • #140922

    Interesting – survey results though kind of sad…the part about the ceiling I feel dead if there is no growth potential. Learning and developing into more is a way to feel engaged as an employee. I can’t imagine ever wanting to stop growing with my organization. The Stats in HR Magazine I was mentioneing are not part of the bigger article…I don’t have a link but it starts on page 20 ndeer HR News, Benefit Briefs. The 3rd Heading “More Than Half of U.S. Employees Dissatisfied with Their Jobs”. It briefly touches on Mercer’s What’s Working survey, a higher percentage of people under 24 and between 25 and 34 are “eyeing departures”.

    You are right about portability – but I’m thinking people will leave before vesting and go back to the private sector leaving IPERS altogether. Most of the people who leave us (and I’m talking 90% or more) leave government altogether – the ones that don’t are high end employees City Managers, Directors, etc. and they rarely leave. I think there is a large difference in local and federal gov. A lot of our employees come to us not because we’re governement specifically but because we are more stable typically and a major local employer. The downside is there is very little mobility when you are at the local level.

    The worst thing – I mean it really makes people jaded when you talk about competitions for employment promotions is the senority factor, you can have a great candidate who has worked their butt off and has great ideas but has less senority and we’re working with a contract that says senority trumps all. How does a young up and comer get around that? Maybe it’s different in other states or at your level but here the union is so powerful and it takes the competition out of it – there is no competition just who has been here longest, unless you’re talking managment (non-union) positions…but then how do you go from entry level to management without some path in the middle? But than that is a different debate altogether.

  • #140920

    Mark Hammer

    Okay, thanks for the tip Kristy. Found it and read it. It helps to have one’s office 40 paces from one of the best libraries on HR, management, leadership, public admin, and I/O psychology in the nation!

    One of the more intriguing points is the seeming increase in turnover among younger people.

    I got to thinking about it, and wondered about the role of the present employment climate.

    My training is in psychology, specifically lifespan development. And one of the tenets of that field is that one needs to always be able to distinguish between what changes that seem to accompany age are attributable to age, attributable to generation/cohort, and what is attributable to when you measure it (among other factors). There undoubtedly will be some aspects of employment behaviour that are, and will remain, attributable to simply being early in one’s career, when you’re not deeply embedded in the organization you’re working for. And there may be something a little different about the birth cohorts that make up “younger employees” at the moment.

    But in the current employment market, let’s ask ourselves what the likelihood is of a recent graduate landing either a) a job that makes good use of their training, or b) a job that pays well enough to defray their student debt at the rate they would like. Basically what I’m saying is that changes in turnover rates among younger employees may be a reflection of the extent to which the jobs that are presently available can meet their needs right off the bat, and not really a direct function of their age, or their generation. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that a great many recent graduates are taking what they can get, applying around, and leaving for something more suitable, more stable. The same people, with the same attitudes, at a different point in economic history – 5-10 years from now, or back in time – might behave differently.

    Our big federal employee survey has asked employees if they were intending to leave, and asked them to rate how important each of a bunch of reasons were in that intention. For young employees with an education, “making better use of my training and skills” is pretty much at the top of the list. Like I say, people often end up in early-career jobs that are a mismatch for their training and their “needs” (financial, personal, vindication for how much in debt you are, etc.). It,s no surprise that they show greater departure intentions than previous generations who may have invested little more than 4 years in high school prior to landing that job.

  • #140918

    I think you can prove it at least on the local level – here is what I have seen in 2007 we tried hiring a Community Development Planner entry level. We received 15 applications and had to hire a fresh out of school candidate. This year same job 200+ applications many well established in the field. Same with Civil Engineers and if we have a job that pays $40,000/year we get dozens of Juris Doctorate candidates who just can’t find work in their chose field. The few lucky college grads who get their dream job right off probably do stay. I hadn’t really thought about that in terms of retention but you are dead on. We have MBA grads doing entry level clerical work…and let’s face it filing sucks.

  • #140916

    Julie Chase

    Carol, I get it. But let’s not sugar coat fed jobs to young folks who are not veterans. It is tough to get in. SCIP is gone and Pathways hasn’t really got off the ground yet, and outside the safe haven of GovLoop, the vets that rallied to rid fed gov SCIP are gearing up to do the same for Pathways. Yes, you are correct, there are plenty of fed jobs out there, unless you are in an agency with a hiring freeze, (like mine), along with frozen wages as well.

  • #140914

    I see this as more of a parallel. I’m wondering if the older feds were not just as happy as these younger feds during their first 3 years? I think that is the question that needs to be asked.

  • #140912

    Mark Hammer

    I think you are correct. It is only partly a generational issue, and, to my mind at least, for the most part a fairly generic tenure issue.

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