Generational Differences in the Workplace
I have mixed feelings about the topic of Generational Differences in the Workplace. It only takes a shallow dive into the academic research on this topic to realize that there is much critique and confusion about who belongs in what generation and not a lot of consensus around whether there are real differences in the values and orientations of members of the generations. Sure, there have been a few research studies that show support for the popular assumption that each generation has a unique set of traits, values, and behaviors. However, studies that have looked at findings across many, many studies (called review studies or meta-analyses) have not found actual differences between generations or have found that outcomes were so mixed or contradicting between studies that it is hard to make sense of what is really going on (e.g. Perry & Urwin, 2011; Rudolph et al, 2018).
Photo Credit: Workest
What stands out is that there is more variability between people within a so-called generation, than there is between the different generations. In other words, people within one generation express many different traits, values, and behaviors. They are individuals after all. Another assumption that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny is the idea that leaders should lead people from different generations using different styles of leadership. Research has not actually looked at whether leaders are more successful when they use different styles with team members from different generations (Rudolph et al., 2018). So, this is an untested assumption based on an already shaky assumption that there are real differences between generations.
We know from mountains of leadership research that leadership is not one size fits all. That evidence comes from studies on the contingency models of leadership. These models have been thoroughly tested and they overwhelmingly show that adapting one’s leadership style to different needs and situations is quite effective (Oc, 2018). However, in these models, leadership is adapted based on a subordinates’ level of experience or skill, the type of tasks they are being asked to perform, and other factors that impact their ability and willingness to get the work done. Not. Their. Age.
"Research has not actually looked at whether leaders are more successful when they use different styles with team members from different generations. So, this is an untested assumption based on an already shaky assumption that there are real differences between generations."
I personally feel that programming focused around Generations easily perpetuates stereotypes and biases. (The very same issues we are trying to combat in our Inclusion and Diversity efforts). As a “Gen Xer” who is in charge of technology implementations at my organization, I find it offensive that I get judged more harshly when the technology fails me than when the same failures happen to my “Millennial” colleagues. Show me a world where technology works 100% of the time! I do love that when I want to flex my work hours, no one thinks I’m less committee or lazy. We save those judgements for Gen’s Y and Z when they ask about flexibility at work. But the “Boomers” said the same things about me when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.
If all of this is starting to sound ridiculous to you, it’s because it kind of is. Equity is also at stake here. We shouldn’t approve some requests and deny others based on a person’s age. “Hey boss, can you pay to send me to this amazing technology conference?” “No, that conference is only for Millennials and Gen Z. Not Xer’s and Boomers.” Again, this would be a ridiculous conversation. Do you hear yourself saying these things? I hear them all the time and I think ‘wouldn’t that thing that was just said be illegal if we replaced “Boomer” with the person’s actual age?
Villanova HRD is comprised of 4 different generations!
So, I started by saying I have mixed feelings about the topic of Generational Differences in the Workplace. Obviously, my feelings are not that mixed. I’m worried about the stereotyping and biases these ideas perpetuate. On the other hand, the idea of differences between Generations is super trendy and popular in HR (Lester et al 2012). I do believe the underlying intention is a good one - the intention or desire to meet the diverse needs of our current and future employees. If the generations discussion helps you move forward with positive programs that do in fact meet more diverse needs, I guess I can get onboard with that. But I would proceed with caution regarding the unconscious assumptions we make when we take the generations idea too seriously and the possible bias and discrimination that can result from those assumptions. Many of the behaviors we see or the questions that arise in our management or HR roles these days can be addressed by contemplating where people are at in their life stage or career stage, alongside the fact that there have been major shifts in where and how we all do work. And by getting to know people as individuals with their own goals, aspirations, responsibilities, and lifestyles.
Heather Cluley, Ph.D. is an Associate Director in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!