In the last decade, an entire cottage industry has sprung up around generational differences in the workplace. Endless amounts of articles, blog posts, videos, and books will tell you how to craft your organizational environment into an intricate web that takes into account differences among generations. Unfortunately, in all of the excitement about accommodating everyone from Gen Z to Baby Boomers, one thing has been overlooked: perceived generational differences are not backed by research. In fact, building policies around these differences does more harm than good for organizations: it amplifies generational stereotypes and ignores the individual characteristics of each employee. To bring out the true potential of every employee, we need to move beyond this approach and build talent strategies that are focused on individuals, not on stereotyped groups.
Generation: a term that is a bit more obscure than you might think
“Generation” is typically used to describe a cohort of individuals who experience the same significant events around the same period of time in their lives and, as a result, are shaped by those events. For example, the Baby Boomer generation is shaped by events like the Cold War and the moon landing.
Although most are familiar with the terms used to identify the generations that are currently in the workforce, delineating the boundaries between them can get murky. For example, the Pew Research Center defines these generations as:
- Baby Boomers: 1946-1964
- Generation X: 1965-1980
- Millennials: 1981-1996
- Generation Z: 1997-2012
However, Nielsen shifts the Millennial bracket to 1977-1995, and PWC shifts it to 1980-1995. The more sources you look at, the less clear the boundaries become. Defining Generation Z? If you ask McKinsey, they would put it at 1995-2010, but Statistics Canada opts for 1993-2011.
Even when examined on the surface, generational boundaries are not as defined as you may think. Let’s dive deeper.
What research really tells us about generational differences in the workplace
More and more evidence is accumulating that the characteristics that we tend to ascribe to different generations in the workplace do not hold up in research studies:
- Think Millennials put more value on being passionate about their work as compared to other generations? A recent IBM study showed that 20% of Millennials, 21% of Gen X-ers, and 23% of Baby Boomers want to be doing work that they are passionate about.
- View Baby Boomers as more likely to be “technology dinosaurs”? A survey conducted by Dropbox and Ipsos showed that Boomers are the least likely to be stressed out about using technology at work.
- Expect Boomers to prefer traditional working hours, and Millenials to seek flexibility? The same Dropbox/Ipsos survey showed that 42% of Baby Boomers, 43% of Gen X-ers, and 39% of Millennials adjust their working hours to work earlier or later on different days. Universum found similar results in their survey, showing that both Millennials and Gen X-ers consider flexibility in working hours and locations to present big opportunities for their career.
- Consider members of younger generations to be less committed to organizations and more open to shifting jobs? A large-scale review of the literature done by David Costanza and colleagues showed that there are no significant differences between younger and older generations in their intent to leave their job and in their commitment to their current organization.
Furthermore, generational groupings can obscure true individual differences that exist within a generation. For example, cultural factors can shape views in very different ways within a single generation:
- When conducting global comparisons, Universum found that 77% of U.S. Millennials consider holding a leadership role to be important, compared to just 51% of Japanese Millennials.
- Dropbox/Ipsos found that 85% of Baby Boomers in the U.S. are happy at work, whereas only 64% percent of Baby Boomers in France feel the same way.
These data points are just a small subset of a larger trend that puts in question many of the perceived distinctions between generations.
This does not fit with my reality – if generational differences do not exist, what am I seeing?
You may be thinking that none of this research aligns with what you are experiencing in your organization: your Gen Z-ers, Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Baby Boomers might appear quite different in how they work and what they value. Where do these differences come from? There are two things that can be at play.
We are all subject to confirmation bias: paying more attention to things that align with our beliefs than those that do not. Because generational differences in the workplace have gotten so much attention, we are primed to notice these differences when they occur, even if they are not that common. For example, you may be more likely to notice and remember the Baby Boomer who is struggling to set up their PowerPoint presentation, than one who is successfully navigating your Slack channels.
Workplace tenure and life stage
What may look like a generational difference can be a result of life stage or tenure in the workplace. In fact, many studies that show generational differences fail to account for these factors (Rudolph & Zacher, 2018). As individuals go through different stages of their life, their values and approaches to work change. For example, your Gen X-ers might be more likely to have families than your Gen Z-ers, which may make those Gen X-ers more likely to prefer the predictability of regular working hours. When Gen Z-ers get to that same life stage, they may start exhibiting the same preferences.
Similarly, tenure in the workforce can dictate behaviors and preferences at work. Boomers might not switch jobs as often as Millennials not because they are Boomers, but because they are later in their career and have a better sense of their path forward. Millennials might have less clarity on the best job fit and switch jobs often to zero in on the right career path. As they gain experience, this movement will slow down.
The pitfalls of building a talent strategy based on generational differences
Because perceived generational characteristics are not based on true differences, building a talent strategy to accommodate these perceived characteristics has negative implications.
If the differences you are observing are a result of life stage or tenure, then your strategy for accommodating generations will be static: working in the moment, but not long-term. As members of each generation get older and gain work experience, their values and views will change, so your approach to Millennials today will not be effective with those same Millennials tomorrow.
Bucketing your talent into generational groups also sets back efforts in enriching and celebrating diversity in the workplace. It erases complex individual differences in favor of stereotypes. Practically, it can even get a little silly. Everyone divides up generations slightly differently, so how will you make decisions for those employees who are on the boundary? Does being born in 1980 versus 1981 really mean that you need an entirely different approach, as might be suggested by the generational boundaries of the Pew Research Center? Or do the employees born in those two years need the same approach, as might be suggested by how Nielsen sets its generational brackets?
A better way forward
To create a talent strategy that meets the needs of every employee, we need to move beyond the generations-focused approach and consider every team member as an individual. Survey employees to understand their preferences instead of making assumptions and consider the other factors that may contribute to the way they work, such as their life stage or tenure. In an inspiring TED talk, Leah Georges suggests “meeting people at their onlyness”: using the lens of the individual, not the lens of generational stereotypes, to understand someone’s behavior at work.
Is this approach more time-consuming? Yes. But it is also one that yields greater returns in the long run. As employee values and needs change over time, your approach remains flexible. Employees are not locked into the “Millennial” bracket or the “Baby Boomer” bracket with a fixed approach that no longer serves them well, even if it was a fit at one point in time.
Building a talent strategy based on individuals allows every employee to maximize their potential, not just those that fit the generational stereotype.
Philip Hunter is an organizational effectiveness expert with more than 15 years of experience working closely with leaders and teams to create the conditions for optimal organizational performance. His areas of focus include leadership development, performance management, succession development, culture transformation, and talent strategy. As a Principal within Verity’s Talent Management Practice, Philip brings a passion for delivering high impact and creative solutions that enhance the impact of leaders within the business.