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Original Research

Work engagement and meaningful work across generational cohorts

Crystal Hoole, Jackie Bonnema

SA Journal of Human Resource Management; Vol 13, No 1 (2015), 11 pages. doi: 10.4102/sajhrm.v13i1.681

Submitted: 09 January 2015
Published:  28 August 2015


Orientation: Engaging employees and providing employees with a sense of meaning at work is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Although research has shown that differences between work engagement and meaningful work amongst generational cohorts exist, results are still inconclusive. With age becoming increasingly more important as a diversity factor, a better understanding of the dynamics between work engagement and meaningful work across different generational cohorts is necessary to design the right strategy for each organisation’s unique parameters.

Research purpose: The aim of this study was to determine whether there is a relationship between work engagement and meaningful work and whether there are significant variances between the levels of work engagement and meaningful work between different generational cohorts.

Motivation for study: Work engagement has consistently been highlighted by researchers and human resources experts as a recommended solution to provide companies with the upper hand when it comes to creating a competitive edge. Yet, levels of work engagement are far from ideal, requiring intensified efforts to identify solutions towards raising overall engagement levels. In recent years, much of the focus in terms of generating engagement has been aimed in the direction of financial rewards and other benefits; some organisational experts are of the opinion that a shift is occurring towards meaningful work instead of monetary rewards as the driver of engagement. The changing nature of the work landscape also suggests that generational cohorts experience work engagement and meaningful work differently. Understanding these complexities is mandatory in creating solutions towards improving levels of engagement and meaningful work.

Research approach, design and method: A cross-sectional quantitative research approach has been followed. The Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES) and Psychological Meaningful Scale (PMS) were administered to 261 participants across several financial institutions in Gauteng, including three generational cohorts (Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y). Main findings: A moderate relationship was found to exist between work engagement and meaningful work. The Baby Boomer generation experiences the highest levels of engagement and meaningful work. Significant differences were found between Baby Boomers and Generation X and Baby Boomers and Generation Y. No significant difference were noted between Generation X and Generation Y.

Practical/managerial implications: A one-size-fits-all strategy to improve work engagement and the sense of meaning in work does not exist. Results of this study suggest that various approaches based on the needs of each cohort may be required in order to sustain engagement. Older workers in particular prove to be far more valuable and productive and should be treated with care.

Contribution: Whilst a large amount of information exists in terms of generational cohorts, not all findings are supported by empirical research to link the concept of work engagement to the different generational cohorts. The conventional belief that older people are less engaged and do not find meaning in their work has been proven to be a misconception, which highlights the danger of stereotypical beliefs. The findings suggest that older employees are still very valuable resources and can contribute significantly to the organisation’s success, but have different needs and values than other age groups. Customised engagement strategies tailored towards different generational cohorts might be more beneficial.

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Author affiliations

Crystal Hoole, Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management, University of Johannesburg, South Africa
Jackie Bonnema, Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management, University of Johannesburg, South Africa


employee engagement, work meaningfulness, generational cohorts, generation x, generation y, baby boomers


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ISSN: 1683-7584 (print) | ISSN: 2071-078X (online)

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