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Generational differences at work: why are we promoting incorrect stereotypes?

Many organisations and individuals believe that there are significant and lasting differences between generations. This goes for people at work too. We often hear questions such as ‘we are working with people across several generations for the first time in history, how can we cater to everyone?’

An article in the Harvard Business Review stated that there are five generations working today, from the silent generation to Generation Z. News media, coffee shop chats, ‘inspirational’ speakers and many more are full of people referring to baby boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and now Generation Z.

However, is there support to the view that these generational differences hold up to scrutiny? When it comes to sociological and psychological research, generational stereotypes are not supported.

Generations in the workplace:

Boomers, millennials, Gen Z: Do generational labels do more harm than good?

The Generation Gap: Why millennials are leaving the office on time, yet leaders still feel the need to work late

Gen Z and millennials struggling to cope with increased cost of living

Generations are defined as groups of people based on shared experiences at similar ages. The assumption is that shared experiences at similar ages create similarities in terms of attitudes, personalities, political orientations and attitudes to work and life.

For example, these kinds of distinctions below highlight generational stereotypes:

● The silent generation: born before 1946, value hard work

● Baby boomers: born 1946-1964, value loyalty

● Generation X: born 1965-1980, value work/life balance

● Generation Y (Millennials): born 1980- 2000, value innovation and change

● Generation Z: born 2001-2020, entrepreneurial, progressive, less focused, access to technology from a young age and communicate via social media

Creating a distinction between generations is also difficult as the cut-off dates often differ from researcher to researcher. Given this, can the distinctiveness of these generational distinctions ever be valid?

Generational differences are essentially stereotypes. Some of the stereotypes that surround different generations are: the people from the silent generation are fossilised and silenced; baby boomers are seen as narcissistic; Generation X are seen as slackers; Millennials even more narcissistic; and Generation Z as those who don’t respond to authority figures.

Despite many conversations about the concepts of generational differences at work, psychological and sociological research doesn’t seem to support the view that there are hard generational differences and distinctive traits based on when a person is born.

There are many research studies that suggest there is no real evidence for generational differences.

Research from University of Southern California found that those from generations of working age value the same things. Some of the similarities found included cautiousness about change; a desire for psychological safety; a desire to trust their seniors and receive timely feedback; and share an ability to learn and develop on the job.

The research found the reason for generational conflict is often miscommunication and misunderstanding rather than differences based inherently on when people were born.

The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences completed a meta-analysis of 20 studies of nearly 20,000 research participants. It found meaningful and significant differences among generations probably do not exist on work-related variables such as job satisfaction and organisational commitment.

The differences that did appear were more likely to be based on life stage, tenure and personal circumstances such as dual-career families and life stage issues such as retirement preparation.

The generational memberships on workplace behaviour are therefore not as strong as suggested by popular stereotypes, with a research paper from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine highlighting that “categorising workers with generational labels… to define their needs and behaviours is not supported by research and cannot adequately inform workplace management decisions.”

As with many things, there’s a temptation to simplify situations and put people into neat boxes. The focus should be on life stage and developmental stage rather than boxing people into categories that continue to perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes.

What we need to focus on in the workplace is making sure everyone feels respected, safe, supported, included and heard. This is timeless and regardless of demographic distinctions.

Grace Mansah-Owusu is an organisational psychologist at Oxford HR