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Generational categories miss the point

Thinking of each generation as an alien species is much less productive than focusing on overall workplace trends

The UK workplace is becoming increasingly multigenerational, due in part to our longer lifespans and the abolition of a compulsory retirement age. To help us manage this diversity there are seemingly endless offers of advice about Generation X, Generation Y, and now Generation Z. Confusingly the advice rarely differentiates between them, essentially merging everyone currently in the 18 to 30 age bracket. ‘They’ are often portrayed as being different from ‘us’ – and this is a distinct challenge we need to rise to.

However, I have a feeling that in doing so we run the risk of missing the point. Are the changes we’re seeing at work really to do with new cohorts joining the workforce? Are these new generations really so different to young adults in other eras?

Several characteristics purported to be typical of a younger generation actually apply to all of us. For example, recent research by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that millennials (Gen Y) want more flexibility at work – but so did non-millennials, and in equal numbers. Similarly, much is made about the impact of technology but this is not just true for the ‘Facebook generation’ or ‘digital natives’. Technology and social media are changing all of our lives. What we’re seeing here are general changes in workplace culture.

Concerns about the ‘modern generation’ are written about as though this is some new phenomenon, when middle-aged people have been complaining about ‘the youth of today’ for a very long time. 3,000 years ago the Greek poet Hesiod complained: "When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint". So not a new phenomenon at all.

OPP’s research bears this out. In 1995 its R&D team administered a standardised personality questionnaire (the 16PF) to a large cross-section of the UK working population. Nearly a generation later, in 2011, it did the same thing. When compared the two groups had very few differences between them, despite there being far fewer Baby Boomers and many more Gen Y in the workforce in 2011. In both 1995 and 2011 older people were significantly more willing to follow externally imposed rules and regulations compared with younger people; were more emotionally stable and resilient; were more orientated to behave in an organised and consistent way; and more likely to want to work and make decisions alone rather than as part of a group. They were less impulsive; less open to change; and more focused on detail and the present moment, rather than on the big picture and the future.

So, if the behaviour of a 19-year-old member of Gen Z actually has a lot in common with how Gen X or Gen Y acted when they were 19, maybe an understanding of how age relates to personality, behaviour and working style is the key to managing a multigenerational workforce.

The heart of the issue might be less about generational differences and more about an awareness of the changing age profile of your organisation. It's probably much more productive to focus on overall workplace cultural trends combined with sensitivity to the age and life stage of each employee. And something that’s common to us all is the desire to be treated as an individual, with unique motivations and aspirations. Not such a difficult place to start.

Penny Moyle is CEO at business psychologists OPP