Stop Harping on Generational Differences
Vociferous feelings about younger generations gave existed for thousands of years. Hesiod, a Greek poet active between 750 and 650 BC lamented, “The frivolous youth of today … are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but [they] are … impatient of restraint.”
In recent years, generational hysteria has reached unprecedented levels in business, with wide-ranging and concerning consequences.
Indeed, the three generations in the workplace do exhibit some differences. For example, they differ in size, with 75 million baby boomers (1946-1964), 55 million Gen Xers (1965-1999), and 77 millennials (1980-1999). Millennials often differ in education and are on track to be the most educated generation in U.S. history. But outside of demographic differences, there’s little scientific support for differences in values or behaviours.
Myths of Generational Differences
For many studies purporting to reveal generational differences, their very design prevents such conclusions. Cross-sectional studies compare generations at the same time. For example, researchers might measure the importance of work by generation. One common finding is that boomers see work as more important than ‘Xers and millennials. But this doesn’t prove that generations are different – it just means that there were differences at the time they were surveyed.
To verify differences between generations, researchers must conduct longitudinal research, following each generation over time. Research of this kind suggests that many so-called generational differences are simply due to life stage. One such study analyzed data from young adults between 1982 and 2007 (assessing baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials at the same age) and concluded that there was no increase in narcissism in recent generations. Therefore, although younger people can be more self-centered than adults, implying that millennilas are any more so than previous generations in incorrect.
Believing in generational differences that don’t exist is dangerous for companies. First, well-intentioned investments like training in generational understanding may not yield meaningful returns. Second, organizations are opening themselves up to risk of stereotypes and ensuing lawsuits.
Stereotypes based on age (especially for protected classes of employees over the age of 40) are just as dangerous as race or gender stereotypes because they influence behaviour. For example, if a new millennial employee is late to work on her second day, the boomer boss might conclude that she lacks work ethic and write her off. Research suggests that when employees are the victim of age-based stereotypes, they start to behave that way.
Three Tips for Responsible Generational Behavior
Squelching stereotypes: Make the decision to manage individuals, not stereotypes. The more we point out differences between generations, the more we exaggerate those differences. Reduce the temptation to assign a set of values or beliefs based on age and be open to understanding each individual.
Considering results first: When someone has a work approach that’s different from ours, it’s easy to pass judgement. Before you judge, examine their results first.
Practicing equal opportunity management: Research suggests that generations share the same values. Even though millennials might be brave (or foolish) enough to ask for flexible schedules or professional development, those things that should be granted to everyone, regardless of their generation.
What may seem like immutable differences between generations may be due mostly to life stage. The less time we spend harping on these so-called differences, the more time and energy we’ll have to grow and sustain our business for all generations.
Source: Training Industry Magazine
Dr. Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist, speaker and New York Times best-selling author of Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom Line Results and the Power to Deliver Both. Her life’s work is to help organizations succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams.
With a contagious passion and energy, Dr T. (as her clients call her) pairs her scientific grounding in human behavior with a practical approach to solving leadership challenges. Her ten-plus year career has spanned roles as an external consultant and a direct report to both CEOs and human resources executives. The majority of Dr. Eurich’s work has been with executives in large Fortune 500 organizations, including CH2M HILL, Xcel Energy, Western Union, Newmont Mining, Centura Health, CoBiz Financial, Destination Hotels and Resorts, DCP Midstream, IHS, Forest Oil, City of Cincinnati, and HCA.
Her expertise has been featured in The New York Times and Forbes and she has published articles in Chief Learning Officer Magazine, The CEO Magazine, Leadership Excellence, The Journal of Business and Psychology, The Work Style Magazine, and other magazines and journals. In 2013, Dr. Eurich was honored as one of Denver Business Journal’s “40 under 40” rising stars in business.