Generational Differences at Work Matter Far Less Than You Think

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Apr 2, 2020

It’s true: older workers tend to be different than younger ones in a lot of ways. Naturally, members of the Silent Generation, who make up about 2% of the workforce and were shaped by the Civil Rights movement and the birth of Rock’ n’ Roll, tend to value different things than Millennials, who make up 35% of the workforce and were shaped by 9/11 and the Great Recession.

However, when it comes to how the five generations (the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z) approach work, stereotypes tend to be overblown. Everyone’s heard the common ones. Older generations don’t know how to operate technology. Younger generations are impulsive and don’t make good managers.

There are a lot of other generational stereotypes that lurk beneath the surface and affect how managers and HR professionals view different employees.

Far fewer differences than most think

As it turns out, however, people believe that there are more differences between the generations than there actually are — and that tends to initiate a vicious cycle that perpetuates the stereotypes. A meta-analysis of 20 studies in the Journal of Business and Psychology helps to debunk several of these stereotypes.

Let’s start with the idea that older generations are more satisfied with their jobs than younger ones. Untrue! Research largely shows that tenure, not age or generation, is a better predictor of job satisfaction. Another stereotype claims that older generations are more committed to their jobs or less likely to leave than younger ones.

Again, this is incorrect. Better indicators of job commitment include how competent you think you are, how challenged you feel at work, and how communicative your managers are. Meanwhile, job turnover depends more on job satisfaction and other organizational factors than on what generation you belong to.

Conflicts aren’t generational either

Further, research from Jennifer Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership shows that intergenerational conflicts at work don’t originate from inherent differences among the generations. Instead, the differences often stem from clout — or, in other words, who can make the rules and who has to follow them.

Deal finds that all workers, regardless of their age, value many of the same things: good feedback from managers, respect, the opportunity to continuously learn, and time for their families. Similarly, people of all ages dislike change at work unless they can benefit from it.

That means that organizations should stop emphasizing the ways in which workers of various ages are different and figure out ways to bring different ages together. The Society for Human Resource Management has recommended a number of ways for employers to reduce generational bias in the workplace. For example, opening up apprenticeship programs to folks of all ages and establishing returnship programs for those re-entering the workforce both go a long way toward promoting age inclusion. They create additional opportunities for many workers — often older ones — who want to put their skills to good use but don’t feel like they have a place in the current workforce.

Similarly, cross-generational mentorship programs can help workers realize the value that those who belong to other generations bring. Still, many organizations have not yet established these programs.

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