Are We Over-Thinking the Generational Divide?

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I continue to be amazed at the pervasiveness and sheer staying power of the generational framework.

We are urged to look at everything, EVERYTHING – from management techniques to employee engagement efforts to reward programs – through the lens of generational differences and needs. And to buy in to the notion that the entire work experience must be re-invented to accommodate each consecutive generation.

And so, I had to smile at Bob Sutton’s assertion that, au contraire, things like the hallmarks of great leaders – and the needs of younger workers – are timeless.

Every new generation faces hurdles

From Sutton’s post:

…every new generation of bosses faces hurdles that seem to make the job tougher than it ever was. The introduction of the telephone and air travel created many of the same challenges as the computer revolution–as did the introduction of the telegraph and trains. Just as every new generation of teenagers believes they have discovered sex and their parents can’t possibly understand what it feels like to be them, believing that that no prior generation of bosses ever faced anything like this and these crazy times require entirely new ways of thinking and acting are likely soothing to modern managers. These beliefs also help so called experts like me sell our wares. Yet there is little evidence to support the claim that organizations — let alone the humans in them — have changed so drastically that we need to invent a whole new kind of boss.

The key point, as Bob notes, is that we are ignoring a critical distinction between someone’s generational group, which will stay constant over time, and someone’s age, which changes. Younger workers have always wanted different things than older workers, be they Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y – or whatever.

Wharton’s Peter Cappelli holds a magnifying glass up to this overlooked distinction in his HREOnline article Enough with the Generation Studies, where he notes that most of today’s generational studies violate a central principle in demographic research – sorting out “age effects” from true “cohort effects.”

Differences that may be irrelevant

Cappelli says:

Here’s the idea: 20-year-olds today seem pretty self-centered. Is that because they are part of a new, “me” generation, a “cohort effect?” Or is simply because 20-year-olds are always self-centered — “age effects” — given that the big responsibilities of adult life are often not yet on their shoulders?

And here’s why that distinction matters: If the apparent differences are the result of age effects, they are transient. Twenty-year-olds will grow up to be 30-year-olds and will acquire the responsibilities and interests along the way that change how they behave.

Trying to make your organization adjust to the needs and interests of current 20-year-olds is a fool’s errand because they are going to change.”

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We had this conversation during my presentation at last month’s TLNT Transform conference in Austin, Texas, where we were debating whether the behaviors and attitudes underlying the challenges being raised by younger employees at an attendee’s organization were a function of them being members of Generation Y – or simply a function of them being 24-year-olds.  I voted for the latter.

The folly we set ourselves up for here is establishing programs to address generational differences that – in Cappelli’s words and to his point – are irrelevant for most employers, rather than seeing the tremendous variety that exists within generations, age groups, and any other “category,” and understand what it means for our own organization’s specific talent needs and challenges.

This was originally published on Ann Bares’ Compensation Force blog.