The Kenexa Research Institute Asks: Youthful Optimism, Myth or Reality?

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Wayne, Pa. —Aug. 3

The legend of the fountain of youth occurs in many cultures going back centuries. One aspect often associated with youthfulness is a sense of optimism about the future. The Kenexa Research Institute (KRI) asked, “Is there any evidence to support the notion that being young brings with it a sense of optimism about the future, or is the notion of youthful optimism just another one of those myths with little substance?”

A recent study conducted by KRI measured employee confidence in the workplace by contrasting younger (18- to 29-year-olds) and older workers’ (50-year-olds and older) levels of confidence. The study was conducted between June 2008 and June 2009.

A high level of employee confidence is achieved when an employee perceives his or her organization as being effectively managed with good business processes, competitively positioned with attractive products and believes he or she has a promising future with the organization, job security and skills attractive to other employers. Employee confidence influences individual behavior, has implications for organizational performance and is a reflection more broadly of macro-economic conditions.

The results from a randomly selected group of more than 29,000 workers from 12 countries indicated that as of June 2009, younger employees reported higher levels of employee confidence. In most countries, younger employees outscored older employees in employee confidence by 5 to 15 percentage points.

In June 2008, older employees in both Spain and China expressed higher levels of employee confidence than younger employees did, and in June 2009, both of those positions were reversed; the younger employees are now more confident.

Jeffrey Saltzman, principal at Kenexa, stated, “Prior to the current economic downturn, Chinese workers over 50 years of age expressed more confidence. According to the IMF, since 1978, China has seen annual economic growth above 9 percent with several years reaching 13 percent growth. That would mean that for the vast majority of their working lives, these older workers have experienced an economic boom with very little turbulence until this past year. The historical confidence that the long-term economic success had wrought has been eroded. The confidence pattern seen in China is looking now more like the majority of studied countries where the youth are more positive.”

For all workers studied, the current gap between the young and old employees was the largest in the United Kingdom (14 percentage points), followed by those in Japan (11 percentage points), China and Germany (10 percentage points). The smallest gap between the younger and older workers was in Brazil, Canada and India (3 percentage points).

Saltzman continued, “A typical pattern seen in employee survey responses suggests that the most positive workers, the most optimistic ones, are those newest to the organization. Typically, optimism fades after about two years. There are exceptions. There are companies that can harness the optimism employees bring with them and keep it burning over the long term. These are the companies that will outperform their competitors.”

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