In recent years, there has been considerable discussion of a coming labor shortage. A large number of workers are expected to leave the workforce when the Baby Boomers retire and the younger generations comprise a considerably smaller demographic. According to a study by the Employment Policy Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the number of available jobs could outnumber workers by 4.3 million when the baby boomers start retiring in 2011. The study concludes that the gap would then widen to a staggering 35 million workers by 2031.

As with anything concerning people, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. There are a number of cultural factors that may pose further recruitment and retention challenges to American businesses, particularly when it comes to skilled and managerial positions. The younger generations that we are counting on to fill these jobs have very different attitudes towards career and family than those that preceded them, and companies will need to adjust if they wish to recruit and retain talent in critical skill areas. What’s more, an increasingly overworked workforce has people of all ages thinking twice about pursuing positions of greater responsibility.

The Families and Work Institute recently published a fascinating report, entitled “Generation and Gender in the Workplace,” that looks at the evolution of Americans’ attitudes towards career and family over the last 25 years. The study provides an interesting portrait of various generations’ ambitions, work weeks and attitudes towards gender roles. What emerges from this examination is a picture of a complex and evolving workforce, one in which traditional motivators such as money and advancement are increasingly tempered by a desire on the part of both men and women to spend more time with their families.

Researchers drew on data compiled from the Families and Work Institute’s 1992, 1997, and 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce and from the U.S. Department of Labor’s 1977 Quality of Employment Survey. The study examines the views of men and women across four generations: Matures (those over 58 years of age), Baby Boomers (38-57), Generation X (23-37) and Generation Y (18-22). It further breaks down these demographic groups into three categories: work-centric (those who prioritize work over family), family-centric (those who emphasize family over work), and dual-centric (those who consider these two aspects of their lives to be of equal importance).

The results reveal a trend towards a workforce that is increasingly giving equal or greater priority to their family responsibilities. The study found that of the four demographics, the Boomers were the most work-centric – 22 percent, compared to 12-13 percent among the other generations studied.

The two youngest generations, in particular, are seeking a greater balance between work and family. Fifty percent of Gen-Y and 52 percent of Gen-X are family-centric compared to 41 percent of Boomers. And Matures, while not as family-centric as the youngest generations, are the least likely to be work-centric (12 percent) with most (54 percent) reporting that they desire an equal balance between work and family.

The study suggests a number of reasons why younger generations may be less career driven. They are more likely than their Boomer counterparts to have grown up with a working mother and many have seen their parents make personal sacrifices only to suffer numerous waves of downsizing. Gen-X and Gen-Y workers have grown up around an employment-at-will job market, while the Boomers’ parents often held positions in the same companies for much of their lives. Work has become more demanding in an increasingly complex and competitive global economy, putting more pressure on employees. Perhaps more importantly, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted many to re-examine their priorities with many choosing to dedicate more time to their families.

This desire for more personal time cuts across genders. While working mothers are spending the same amount of time with their children as they did 25 years ago, working fathers are spending more. Gen-X fathers spend more time with their children than Boomer fathers: 3.4 hours per workday vs. 2.2 hours. And while there are too few fathers among the Gen-Y sample to make a definitive statement about their parenting habits, they appear to be devoting more time to their children than Gen-X fathers.

The researchers are careful to point out that younger generations are not averse to working. In fact, the average work week is considerably longer than it was 25 years ago for people of all ages. In 2002, men averaged 49 hours of paid and unpaid work per week, up two hours from 1977 averages. Women have seen their hours go up from 39 hours paid and unpaid a week to 43.5 per week. Both would like to work less hours. (Most preferred hours in line with their companies’ stated hours of operation.)

It is this rise in work hours, combined with a change in attitudes towards career and family among younger generations, which pose the biggest recruitment and retention challenges to American businesses. Many women are seeking part-time jobs or choosing to opt out of the workforce altogether, embracing the more traditional role of stay-at-home moms. In some cases, men, in an example of role reversal, have chosen to remain at home with the children while their wives work.

More common has been a downtrend in career ambition among both men and women. According to “Generation and Gender in the Workplace,” 61 percent of the entire workforce and 80 percent of all college-educated Gen-Y, Gen-X and Boomer workers would like to work fewer hours. Thus, it should come as no surprise that fewer people of all ages wish to seek advancement and the longer hours that would accompany such higher-level positions. A mere 43 percent of the aforementioned college-educated demographics, all prime candidates for promotion, want to move into jobs with greater responsibility.

Not surprisingly, the study reveals a direct correlation between the quality of employees’ work lives and their willingness to advance. Those who wished to work more hours were more likely to desire promotion than those who felt they worked too much: 75 percent vs. 40 percent. Those who struggled with managing work and their personal lives were less likely to seek advancement than those who found it easy to balance the two: 44 percent vs. 50 percent. While the majority of those who rarely or never felt overwhelmed by their jobs wished to move up (59 percent), less than a third (30 percent) of those who very often felt overwhelmed at work desired advancement.

In light of these trends, it behooves businesses to again move issues of work/life balance to the forefront as they plan for the future. There are a number of proven options to help alleviate some of the strain workers are feeling in their personal lives – everything from job sharing to telecommuting to compressed work weeks – that would make advancement a more palatable option for all employees. The most successful organizations have always understood that change is something to be embraced and that should include not only the work that we do but how, when and where we do it. This is not our parents’ workplace and today’s businesses ignore that fact at their own peril.