How stable are work values?

Icarus by Steve Jurvetson

Think of your work values as the navigational guidance system for your career... oh!

How much do your work values change over time?

Are there times when your work values change more than others?

How much are your work values influenced by what is happening around you?

Do you adjust your values according to what is available to you?

Do some generations have more stable work values than others?

These are just some of the questions that a new meta-analysis by Jing Jin and James Rounds from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tries to answer.

But first… what are work values?

Work values

Jin & Rounds quote a definition of a value as an “enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable  to an opposite or converse mode of conduct or end state of existence” (Rokeach, 1973, p.5). Another way of thinking about this is that a value is something you are willing to pay the appropriate price for, i.e. you would be willing to exchange or sacrifice something else in order to obtain what you value.

Many different people have tried to define and categorise different work values (often based on more general human needs and motivations). In the Jin & Rounds study they use four main groups of values:

  • Intrinsic or self-actualisation values (e.g. personal growth, autonomy, interest, creativity, challenge, intellectual stimulation)
  • Extrinsic or security/material values (e.g.  pay, security, work environment)
  • Social or relational values (e.g. interacting with people, altruism, contribution to society)
  • Status or power values (e.g. prestige, authority, influence)

How might things change

They looked at two ways of measuring change or stability in values over time: rank-order stability and mean-level stability.

  • Rank-order stability looks at how much individuals change within a group. Do the same people rate the same values in the same order at different points in their life, or do they change their minds?
  • Mean-level stability looks at how much the group as a whole changes over time. Do certain values become more important to everyone at certain periods?

It can be interesting to think about the different ways we can discuss work values with clients.

We can get clients to rank and prioritise their values. Is personal growth more important to the client than obtaining prestige? This ranking exercise can help to identify the order in which values need to be satisfied or what questions need to be asked first about any career option being considered. It could then be useful to look at what conditions would make them switch the order of these values.

We can also get clients to think about the optimum conditions for satisfying their values. How much personal growth is too little; how much is too much? And how might that change over time?

So, are they stable?

One of the main findings of the meta-analysis is that rank-order of values is pretty stable over time. This means that, in general, people don’t tend to change their minds about what values are more important to them than others. However, this stability was lowest for those aged 18 to 22 years (university students). University is generally a time when people do a lot of exploration and self-discovery. Values are likely to be questioned and shuffled at this stage. This raises a challenge to those of us working in the HE sector. Should we be asking students to pin down their values or should we be helping them in the process of values exploration?

Whilst rank-order was fairly stable over the lifespan, mean-level measures demonstrated significant movement. The 18 to 22 age group tended to attach more importance to intrinsic values over everything else. This could reflect the dominant values of the educational system in which they are immersed.

From age 22 to 26 extrinsic values increased in importance and everything else decreased. In the paper, this is put down to a move from idealism to realism based on the increasing need to fulfil worldly responsibilities (family, mortgage, etc.).

After age 26, extrinsic values continued to increase but so did status values. Perhaps this is down to the fact that more opportunities tend to exist for hierarchical advancement and you tend to value things more highly if you think you can achieve them.

Social and relational values demonstrated a continued decrease in importance across the lifespan. It is suggested that this represents the fact that as you get older work becomes a less important source for social relationships.

I’m somewhat sceptical about the hype over generational differences (see this excellent post by Jim Bright on the subject). However, one interesting finding of the study was that Generation Xers  (born 1965-1981) demonstrated lower rank-order stability than Baby Boomers (1946-1964).

As a group (mean-level stability), Baby Boomers showed an increase in extrinsic values over time but Gen Xers decreased their extrinsic values. Again, this may represent changes in external economic conditions and the fact that we value things more if they are accessible and downplay them if we don’t believe we can get them.

Further reading

  • Jin, J. & Rounds, J. (2011). Stability and change in work values: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies Journal of Vocational Behavior. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2011.10.007
  • Rokeach, M. (1973). The Nature of Human Values. New York: John Wiley.

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  1. #1 by David Lindskoog on 25 November 2011 - 21:22

    Interesting to see the differences by age group. Identifying what’s important (i.e. values) has been a big part of the more in-depth work I’ve been doing with students in Higher Education, many of whom are of course in the 18-22 age range. By observation, I would say that most of the values that end up coming up in these discussions have indeed been of the intrinsic variety.

    I do often hear the phrase “comfortable living wage” expressed as a value, though this almost always comes after “to do something meaningful.”

    • #2 by David Winter on 26 November 2011 - 06:44

      I didn’t check, but I suspect that the studies analysed were mostly conducted on US/western subject. It would be interesting to see if the same patterns were observed in Asian workers.

  2. #3 by John King on 27 November 2011 - 22:05

    Be careful about the term ‘realism’. I know plenty have people who have made decisions which do not conform to societal norms and yet have ended up providing better support for their families than those who have. By talking about realism in careers we are in danger of making the assumption that there is an underlying ‘real’ and permanent social structure which is independent of the actions of an individual (ie that the person adjusts to the world rather than being able to adjust the world).

    What may be happening is that many people fail to ‘real-ise’ their ideals. If we call this a move toward ‘realism’ it stops us questioning what we can do to better help people learn to translate ideals into reality.

    • #4 by David Winter on 28 November 2011 - 22:58

      I agree John. Just quoting the paper. It could equally be explained by a shift in core identity from work to non-work settings. Thus relegating work to the ‘means-to-an-end’ category. Or it could be something else entirely.

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