When sitting around the table for Christmas lunch you might have been joined by several generations of your family, from Boomer grandparents to Gen Z students home for the festive break.
It’s also possible that the differences between those generations went largely unnoticed until someone laughed at that terrible ‘dad joke’ from a table cracker. It is those generational nuances that we try to make sense of when we assign a label like ‘Gen X’ to someone.
According to some post-war theorists, your values and attitudes are not only defined by the individual context of your life, but also by the year of your birth. Seized upon by marketeers, generational labels have become so mainstream, so widely used, that few people have questioned whether they are, in fact, useful.
However, in May 2021 a group of social scientists did just that.
An open letter to the US think tank Pew Research Center, asked it to stop using such generational labels in their analysis of societal behaviours. The signatories insisted that terms like Silent Generation, Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Gen Y and Z are, among other charges, based on a pseudoscience that looks to assign a character to someone based solely on when they were born.
Of course, such labels are not just used by the pollsters at Pew, everyone from advertisers to employers rely on them to guide strategy and engagement.
But with five generations now working side-by-side, how helpful is the use of such labels in the workplace? And do they improve HR management, or are they, in fact, divisive?
The trouble with labels:
According to Emma Parry, professor of human resource management at Cranfield School of Management, there is a risk that HR can over-rely on generational labels, particularly when it comes to recruitment and retention.
“This is, of course, because they make our lives easier,” says Parry, who has researched age and generational differences in the workplace.
“They provide a shortcut by which to generalise about the characteristics of age groups and therefore decide on what to include in our employer value proposition in order to attract a particular age group.”
But, she says, there is a danger in basing strategy on what is a flimsy theory.
Parry adds: “The problem here is that the evidence for differences between categories is weak and methodologically flawed, and for the most part actually suggests long-term trends in attitudes and expectations over time, rather than a step-change between categories.
"The evidence also suggests that there is more heterogeneity within – rather than between – generational categories.”
It’s hardly surprising then that the generalised traits assigned to these labels aren’t entirely accurate. Millennials and Gen Y and Z are considered to be tech-savvy, digital natives, while Boomers are thought to have a stronger work ethic than their younger colleagues.
“There’s the idea that you’ve got to give younger people a workplace where there’s more meaning, where, for example, the employer values things like sustainability,” says Helen Giles, director of people and culture at Revitalise.
“But, you’ve only got to look at the age of Insulate Britain protesters to know that it’s not just young people that value things like that.”
Jayne Rowley, executive director of student services at Jisc, points out that youth doesn’t always equate to technological expertise. “What we’re seeing is that you need to separate business tech skills from social tech skills,” she says.
“A lot of the technical capability that young people have is around social tech. We’re hearing from employers who tell us that young people are interviewing for roles but have no idea how to work with platforms like Office 365. So, you can’t make assumptions.”
Aside from the accuracy of such labels, there is also the risk that their misuse could promote age-related stereotypes and potentially lead to discrimination in the workplace.
Giles calls ageism the ‘last acceptable bastion of discrimination’. Flippant comments like ‘OK, Boomer’ might seem harmless, but the labels are inherently linked to age. If we view them through the lens of this protected characteristic, might we be as comfortable with their use, particularly in the workplace?
"Flippant comments like OK, Boomer might seem harmless but the labels are inherently linked to age"
“It might be that generational labels are seen as being more acceptable as they are dressed up as being about something else, and ultimately people see some validity in the idea of attitudes being different in younger people,” says Parry.
Indeed, it could be argued that assigning labels is a way of ‘othering’ colleagues instead of embracing their generational attitudes.
“Terms attributed to Millennials, such as ‘snowflake’, are harmful and perpetuate ageist stereotypes,” says Laura Kennett, head of people at design agency Bakken and Baeck.
“We’re finally having better conversations about mental health in the workplace and I see younger generations leading the way in [that]. I’d like to think these new attitudes are encouraging more progressive conversations about other life events too, such as supporting menopause in the workplace.”
Rather than reject the use of generational labels, some argue that they can, in fact, be a way of opening up the conversation about age in the workplace. “From an HR perspective, you’re not going to change the fact that these labels exist,” says Graham Robertson, director of Get The Gen.
“Your colleagues in the workplace are consuming digital content online that uses these labels. People are aware of the stereotypes anyway. Whilst I agree that there’s no exact science behind those labels, you can use them as a platform for a conversation about age diversity in the workplace.”
Robertson’s social enterprise carries out workplace training that aims to debunk the myths associated with generational labels and stereotypes. Unlike other protected characteristics, getting older is something that all employees have in common. Robertson says this presents an opportunity for employers to start up a broader conversation about diversity at work.
'Used correctly, labels can be a positive to counter ageism rather than contribute to it.'
“There’s always the moment in these workshops when the penny drops, when it becomes less about a generational label and more about recognising that your colleagues have different worldviews and different ways of working,” says Robertson.
“That opens up other channels into conversations around race, gender, disability, other aspects of diversity and inclusion.”
Anja Skvortsova, managing director of Audeliss, agrees that there can be positives to generational labels: “Used correctly, [labels] can be a positive to counter ageism rather than contribute to it. For example, understanding that Gen Z and Millennials are less likely to be homeowners than Gen X leads a company to consider different situations around remote working compared with assuming that everyone is the same.”
There is, however, a general consensus in this debate that if HR insists on using generational labels, it should do so with caution. Skvortsova says HR should support their reliance on labels with factual data from within the organisation such as employee engagement surveys that are perhaps analysed by age, and which might give more credence to the labels applied.
“It can sometimes pay to ask employees which generational group they feel they belong to, rather than apply a definition based purely on age,” she suggests.
Parry argues that HR should ultimately aim for an individualised approach to employees rather than grouping them together based on year of birth.
“It is obviously very difficult practically to individualise an EVP or career path,” says Parry. “But we can get closer to this by encouraging line managers to have regular conversations with their employees in order to understand what their individual preferences and needs are, by offering a variety of rewards and opportunities, and by allowing employees some agency in crafting their own careers and ways of working wherever possible.”
If HR chooses to move away from the use of generational labels it might wonder what else it could rely on to define employee needs. Rowley at Jisc points out that aside from getting older, employees also have another shared experience – having lived through a pandemic.
“It has been a levelling experience for us all,” says Rowley. “I’d like to think that it has made people much more tolerant, ready to listen to different viewpoints and experiences. And maybe some of those generational labels will become redundant because we’ll have something else in common.”
The above was first published in the November/December 2021 issue of HR magazine. Subscribe today to have all our latest issue of HR magazine delivered right to your desk.