Article by Obelisk

A few weeks ago my mentor asked me if I could write an article about ‘Happiness at Work’. I was very excited, because I like writing and as an intern I want to get insight into a broad spectrum of tasks and topics. But while brainstorming about the task, I discovered that it was not as easy to get started as I expected. I, a 23-year-old that just launched my career, didn’t know what happiness at work actually meant. That’s why I brought it up at the dinner table with my parents. I asked them what happiness at work meant for them and what they needed to feel happy in a job and an organization. After some thinking they responded with nice colleagues, good working conditions, a manageable work-life balance, autonomy and challenging job responsibilities. While listening carefully to their opinion, I found out that I didn’t fully agree. I can’t imagine myself being happy in a challenging, autonomous job with good working conditions and a good work-life balance if aspects like meaning and connectivity are lacking. For me authenticity, meaning and connectivity with both the organization and my colleagues are of much bigger importance than the aspects my parents named.

It became clear to me that my parents and I had different views on happiness at work and that’s not so strange if we look at the definition of happiness. According to Seligman, the guy who developed the PERMA model, happiness is “the cognitive evaluation that an individual’s life is moving in the right direction. It is the individual’s constant search for positive emotions, meaning and purpose in life.” A literature review from Delle Fave and colleagues supports that definition. They found that happiness is commonly defined as a process of developing meaning and identity by reaching one’s own potential and pursuing subjectively relevant goals. It is thus not so weird that my parents’ and my own view on happiness at work differ, since happiness depends on an individual’s needs, values, expectancies and goals.

However, when I was talking to some peers about this subject, I came to the conclusion that we all had a quite similar perspective on happiness at work. We value social rewards and meaningful work that is in line with our individual values over independency and good working conditions, in contrast with our parents. This finding raised the next question in my head: “Are there next to the individual differences also generational differences in happiness and happiness at work? Or, in other words, do the interpretation of happiness at work and the ways to achieve that differ between generations?”

To be able to answer that question, I dived into the concept of generation. A generation is defined as “a group of individuals who roughly share the same year and place of birth. They grow up in the same historical time period and experience the same pattern of events, although probably interpreted differently. They form an identity shaped by the common social and economic conditions in their youth, which means that they generally have certain norms and values in common.” I repeat: they generally have certain norms and values in common. This part of the definition suggests that generational differences in happiness at work exist, since happiness depends on one’s needs, values, expectancies and goals.

At this moment four different generations are working together in the workplace. While the baby boomers are slowly leaving the labour market, part of generation Z is already joining generation X and the millennials in the workplace. Those generations all have their own specific characteristics and values. Baby boomers are known as hardworking and ambitious individuals with a job-centred mindset; generation X is seen as a flexible and independent generation that ‘invented’ the concepts of entrepreneurship and work-life balance; millennials are the ones seeking meaningful and fun work that stimulates their personal development; and generation Z is becoming a generation that prioritizes individuality, authenticity and connectivity in its relationships, among others. In the table below I summarize the five most frequently mentioned characteristics and values per generation.

Baby boomers Achievement Ambition Criticism Optimism Workaholism
Generation X Balance Flexibility Independence Innovation Materialism
Millennials Fun Meaning Passion Responsibility Self-improvement
Generation Z Authenticity Connectivity Creativity Individuality Transparency


For an individual to reach happiness his or her personal goals and expectancies, which are based on values, need to be fulfilled. Since those values (and by consequence those goals and expectancies) are at least partly determined by the generation that one is born in, organizations need to respond differently to the specific needs of each generation in order to establish happiness at work. It is thus beneficial for organizations to develop a human resource management strategy focused on creating happiness at work, which is tailored to the needs of all four generations. Although it being a general model, the PERMA model from Seligman can still be used as a framework or starting point for that strategy. It’s five letters are important ingredients for wellbeing and happiness for all generations. But when using it, we need to keep two things in mind: (1) not every ingredient is equally important to each generation and (2) the concrete meaning of the ingredients and the ways to collect them can differ between generations. For me ‘Relationships’ is about feeling connected to all my colleagues, whereas for my parents it probably means being surrounded by a nice and friendly team.