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Sep 18, 2020

The landscape of work is very different than it was 40 to 50 years ago (or even five months ago!). Phenomena such as increasing globalization, rapid technological innovation, and expansion of the service sector have reshaped work broadly. 

This has all been accompanied by new types of occupations, new job tasks, and new ways of interacting with coworkers and customers. Some changes have emerged gradually, while others have been more abrupt in response to acute social and economic conditions, like recent COVID-19 adaptations.

As the world and the workplace have changed, so too have the characteristics of the workforce. The education levels and skills of workers have risen as increasingly more people have completed high school and sought college degrees. Growth in the employment rates of women and older workers, late retirements, and increasing racial and ethnic variation in the U.S. population have all contributed to diversifying today’s workforce.

For many years, the vast majority of the workforce consisted of young workers, 16 – 34, and middle-aged workers, 35-54. Since 2000, however, the proportion of older workers, 55 and up, has increased. Today, each age group represents about a third of the U.S. workforce. As a result, many employers are looking to maximize the benefits of a more age-diverse workforce.

Popular generational labels — millennials, generation X, and baby boomers — have been used to distinguish these age groups of workers. Many believe that understanding the unique attributes and values of each generation will help managers and employees alike more effectively communicate with each other and build stronger working relationships.

However, there is no consistent scientific support for the existence of meaningful generational differences that can inform employment practices. 

A Lack of Evidence for Generational Stereotyping

We served on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee that published a report this year examining existing studies on generational differences. Our work found a number of methodological limitations, such that any observed differences between workers could not be linked to generations specifically with any certainty. 

For example, users of generational labels often conflate generation with age. The report concluded that observed differences among workers are more accurately attributed to the overall changing nature of work and a range of individual differences than to hypothetical traits of generations. As a result, the report advised employers against using generational categories for workforce management practices.

The report points out that “people born in the same year or span of years may have some similar experiences, but they may also have very different experiences, depending on such factors as socioeconomic status, geographic location, education level, gender, and race/ethnicity.” Additionally, studies have shown that the growing use of “generational traits” can lead to prejudice, bias, and stereotyping of individual workers.

When contemplating revision of management practices, a generational perspective can be misguided, and may simply perpetuate stereotypes that likely do not apply to everyone in one’s workforce. A generational perspective does not reflect the individual differences in life and career experiences and the variations in abilities, attitudes, and values that undoubtedly exist within any age group. 

For example, some 50-year-old workers will want to retire at 55, while others will wish to work into their 70s. Policies and practices based on age, generation, or other demographic characteristics are likely to be applied to some who do not desire or need a specific offering and exclude others who do.

Limiting Effects on Progress

A focus on generational issues also limits progress by overlooking actual worker preferences and by masking opportunities to examine actual changes in workplace context, including real challenges in the management of a more age-diverse workforce. 

For instance, some have argued that younger generations prefer team-based work; thus, employers are encouraged to put younger workers in teams and promote such opportunities to them. However, research on this topic shows that the personal preference for team-based work on average has actually decreased for workers of all ages over time. Nonetheless, there is substantial evidence that the nature of work has become more interdependent and that project teams are more prevalent in today’s workplaces. 

In many work environments, workers and clients of mixed ages and experiences need to figure out how to work together effectively to achieve desired business outcomes. A focus on presumed generational differences does not fulfill this aim.

Meanwhile, just as there are many different types of employees, there are many different types of employers. Each employer will face its own unique set of workforce management challenges in response to societal changes. While some issues will be similar across workplaces, such as learning to manage an increasingly diverse workforce and successfully incorporating new technologies into employment practices, the best solutions for a particular situation will vary by employer.

In many cases, the effectiveness of specific practices will depend on such factors as the characteristics and size of the workforce, the culture of the organization, and the demands on and requirements of workers, as well as workers’ own needs and expectations. Focusing on overblown generational differences, on the other hand, only limits attention to such particular employee and employer needs.

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