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How Culture and Age Shape Career Ambition

By Melissa J. Anderson

Today’s workforce is more diverse than ever before. With large companies employing individuals across geographic regions and with workplace teams spanning more than a 40-year age range, leaders must be aware of the competing priorities and desires of their employees.

Recently Kelly OGG released a new report, “4 Factors that Shape Careers,” which sums up several influences on career ambition – most notably, age and geography.

According to authors Nina M. Ramsey, Senior Vice President, Global Human Resources, and Brad Borland, Senior Director of Global Talent Management-Leadership Development, the research reveals the importance of flexible, dynamic management of diverse workforces.

They write, “Career choice and progression is a multi-layered, shifting dynamic. And in this increasingly diverse, globalized context, managing for individual career choice and increased flexibility will be key to maintaining productivity across entire workforces.”

The study surveyed 97,000 people from the Americas, APAC, and EMEA. Here’s how age and geography impact views about career progression and ambition.

Generation and Ambition

According to the study, younger workers were much more ambitious than older ones. It says, “Although eight in ten Gen Y’s aspire to become executives, less than three-quarters of Gen X’ers and a little more than half of Baby Boomers feel the same desire to climb the corporate ladder.”

Baby boomers reported work-life balance as the main reason for career change. Younger workers changed careers more often to make more money. Additionally, younger workers were more confident about the ability to come back to their career after taking time off.

It wasn’t clear whether this level of confidence and ambition was simply related to age or unique qualities of their generation. It could simply be that younger workers see more opportunities than ones who have been in the workforce longer. Ramsey and Borland write:

“If younger workers are looking for more opportunity and a greater sense of career progression, yet are less likely to have all the experience required, how do you keep them engaged? And how do you fill demanding roles requiring experience if older workers are more focused on work-life balance and personal interests?

Understanding how career choices differ across the generations is critical for effective talent management, and these issues are likely to become even more complex as Generation Z enters the workforce in larger numbers.”

Geography and Ambition

But perhaps even more than age, culture and geography had a significant impact on views toward career advancement. According to the study, individuals in the Asia-Pacific region were more “focused on climbing the corporate ladder.”

Eighty-four percent of individuals surveyed in APAC said they aspired to the executive role, with Gen Y leading ambition in all regions. “…an overwhelming 90% [in APAC] have an executive position as a career goal, compared with 82% in the Americas and just 72% in EMEA.”

In fact, fewer employees in EMEA reported executive aspirations at every level. The study explains:

“Just 5% of people in the Americas and 9% in APAC say they lack the ambition to reach the executive level of management—for most people in these regions the lack of work-life balance and extra stress that comes with promotion is their main reason for deliberately avoiding a senior position. This is in contrast to those in EMEA, where more than one-quarter say they lack the ambition for an executive role. Ambition clearly has a cultural context and this is a significant challenge for companies applying a uniform talent management approach across multiple markets.”

The survey revealed that almost two-thirds of people in APAC (63%) expect to change careers in the next five years, which Ramsey and Borland attribute to “full-tilt development.” Only 48% of workers expect to change jobs in the same time-frame.

They explain:

“When we examine the reasons why people consider career changes, we see the knock-on effect of economic development on worker attitudes. In the Americas, the main reason for considering a new career is to increase income. There is also a larger proportion of people in the Americas who are concerned that their industries are in decline.”

Finally, the study looks at geography and skill development. Workers in APAC and the Americas are more likely to see professional development as extremely important for career growth (68 percent and 66 percent), while only 54 percent of employees in EMEA felt the same.

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