This is a summary of the paper presented by the authors at the World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR) 66th Annual Conference held in Boston in mid-May. The paper applies public opinion research techniques to study and address the issue of work-life balance (WLB) in Hong Kong, using the framework of generation analysis, like those using concepts of “post-80s” and “post-90s”. The authors aggregated primary data collected through 19 surveys, all conducted by the Public Opinion Programme (POP) at the University of Hong Kong from 2006 – 2012. A total of 14,486 valid cases were included.
In late 1970s, the expression “work-life balance” first appeared in U.K. A movement followed and innovators started to think about new ways of working. It was not until 1986 that this phrase was first used in the United States. Meanwhile, the term Generation Y (born in 1977-94) first appeared in 1993, in contrast to Generation X (1966-76) and Boomers (1946-65). Generation Y is considered to be independent, confident, diverse and to them, WLB is a necessity, not a luxury. Besides, the presence of technology has fundamentally changed Generation Y's attitude and behavior in the workplace. WLB is hence recognised as the leading retention strategy for Generation Y.
Current WLB and Job Satisfaction
According to our surveys, each employee worked around 50 hours per week on average but only spent 11 hours on personal activities. Employees in Hong Kong were known to work the longest hours in Asia Pacific.
The top 5 work-life initiatives offered by the local employers were career breaks / unpaid personal leave (35%), flexible working time (27%), extra paid leave (26%), option to work remotely (21%), and job-sharing (15%). However, around one-fifth (22%) of employers did not offer any of the above work-life initiatives.
When it came to overall job satisfaction before the economic tsunami, Boomers were the most contented group with a net satisfaction (i.e. satisfaction % minus dissatisfaction %) of 45%, whereas the respective figures for Generations X and Y were 40% and 43%. The gap among generations after the tsunami was significantly widened, as the figures changed to 53%, 47% and 38%. Generation Y also scored the lowest mark at 5.7 out of 10 in terms of the degree to which they had achieved their ideal WLB, while those for Boomers and Generation X were 5.9 and 6.0.
Importance of Various Job Attributes
Of the 16 job-related attributes measured in our job satisfaction survey model, findings showed that there were similarities and differences among different generations for what they valued most. Salary was no doubt one of the most important factors for everybody, but what mattered too differed across generations. Boomers also concerned about the environment safety and job security. Generation X cared about their job security and relationship with boss/supervisor, whereas for Generation Y, relationship with co-workers ranked high followed by safety at the workplace. As compared to the other 15 attributes put to test, work flexibility attained the lowest net importance value across all generations. However, since the values were all positive, work flexibility was still perceived as an important factor in an absolute sense.
In order to create and maintain a highly-engaged workforce, the most ideal scenario would be to achieve high satisfaction for all important attributes that mattered to the employees, but it was easier said than done. One possible strategy was to locate some important attributes which still had ample room for improvement in terms of employee satisfaction, and which might have been overlooked by the employers. By contrasting employees’ perceived importance and satisfaction towards each of the 16 attributes by each generation, 7 attributes stood out, namely 1) career advancement, 2) job variety, 3) management recognition, 4) meaningfulness, 5) professional development, 6) salary and 7) work flexibility. They all exhibited one common characteristic: their net importance of Generation Y is the highest, whereas Generation Y’s net satisfaction with them is the lowest. In other words, these were the most generation-sensitive aspects with very diversified views from different generations. Of these 7 “problematic” attributes identified, regardless of the economic situation and job nature, work flexibility appeared to be the most uncomplicated and affordable way for employers to increase satisfaction because its implementation would cost very little.
Matching Expectations and Closing Generation Gaps
Nearly 60% of employees admitted that flexible work arrangements was an important factor when they considered joining or staying with an organization, especially for Generation Y, with a net importance value of 50%, as contrast to 22% and 27% only for Boomers and Generation X.
Furthermore, prolonged fatigue, insomnia, stressed out, reduced productivity and absenteeism were all commonly reported problems resulting from poor WLB. Even worse, some employees would actually consider leaving their current job for better WLB. Generation differences after the tsunami was great, as the figures for Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y were 22%, 36% and 53% respectively. This finding further substantiated the significance of work-life initiatives in recruiting, attracting and keeping the young talents in their workplace.
Given there might be plentiful choices for flexible work arrangements, employers should carefully prioritize what measures should be implemented first, and to which target groups. Survey statistics showed that flexible working time topped the list as the most wanted work arrangement across all generations. The second most wanted item was career breaks for both Boomers and Generation Y. As for Generation X, the second and third place went to option to work remotely, then career breaks. For third place for Boomers and Generation Y, they are job-sharing and compressed work week respectively.
As regards employees’ assessment of how much effort their boss had paid to promote WLB, for Boomers, they seemed to appreciate more of their boss’ effort after surviving the financial crisis as the average had increased from 4.8 to 4.9. For Generation X, the scores stayed at 4.6, whereas for Generation Y, the score dropped from 4.8 to 4.7, meaning their expectations on their bosses were mounting after the economic crisis. All scores failed to reach the passing mark of 5.
One possible explanation for such poor assessments was that what the employers currently provided was a total mis-match of what the employees wanted. Findings showed a landslide majority of employees failed to get what they most desired. Taking flexible working time as an example, the proportion of employees who had this desire fulfilled accounted for 34%, 26% and 20% only for Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. With respect to career breaks, the yet-to-be-matched percentages were as high as 60%, 79%, and 67%. It remained a big challenge for the employers to fulfill their employees’ expectations for various flexible work arrangements, and to close the different gaps across different generations.
Conclusion and Discussion
The Hong Kong workforce is no doubt "hard-working", as each member worked for an average of 50 hours per week, but it is doubtful whether they are also "playing hard". The self-accessed WLB achieved is only 5 to 6. Long working hours coupled with work-life imbalance hamper employees' health and morale. It is therefore natural that our Generation Y pays more attention to the issue of WLB nowadays.
Because of generation differences in terms of WLB expectations, employers using simple administrative approach to handle all WLB arrangements in one go will lose their edge, especially if they lose the support of Generation Y. Moreover, this study has found a general mismatch between the WLB arrangements provided by the boss and what their employees really want. Significant efforts are therefore wasted, resulting in an unhappy workforce. The best employer should be the one who pays special effort to understand their subordinates, and also recognises the value of WLB in increasing productivity.
In a way, this paper is the first of its kind in applying public opinion research techniques to study and address the issue of WLB in Hong Kong, using the framework of generation analysis. The division of Hong Kong’s labor force into Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y appears to have high practical value for academics and business leaders. The authors hope that this study would trigger more researches along this line.
However, in light of the ever changing socio-political environment, it may be too early to decide whether “Boomers”, “Generation X”, “Generation Y”, “pre-80s”, “post-80s”, “post-90s”, or “screenagers” can best describe the process of social change at large.