Generational Differences at Work: More Conflict Than Clarity?
By Madison Hanscom
Most of us are familiar with generational stereotypes. Millennials are narcissistic, Gen Xers are cynical, and Baby Boomers are judgmental. When scanning the workplace, it might seem easy to find patterns of behavior that correspond with these generational cohort characteristics, but are these patterns actually there? And for any differences that do emerge, are these actually due to generational cohort membership?
What does the research say?
There are plenty of authors claiming that generational differences are meaningful, but if you take a closer look at the foundation for such claims through the lens of rigorous empirical research, things are not so straightforward. There have been many studies debunking common work-related claims about generational groups. A meta-analysis (a large study that combines the results of multiple scientific studies on the same topic for a more comprehensive conclusion) examined potential differences between generations on work outcomes such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and intentions to turn over (1). Results showed little evidence to support meaningful differences among generations on the work outcomes.
Additional studies and reviews of the empirical literature have concluded there are no differences in work ethic between the generational groups (2) or in leadership-related phenomena (e.g., leader styles) between generational groups (3), although these are commonly held beliefs.
Further, there have been longitudinal studies (i.e., research design that involves following people throughout time) to examine whether or not there are clear work-related attitude differences or value preferences between generational cohorts over time. These studies show there are very few or no differences in values across time between generational groups – people seem to prefer similar things (e.g., 4; 5). Another significant finding is there are more differences in work values and preferences within the same generational cohort than between different generational cohorts (e.g., 6). In other words, you will find just as many Millennials within the Millennial cohort that have different preferences as you will between Millennials and Baby Boomers.
In some circumstances work differences will be found between generational cohorts, and there are typically good statistical reasons as to why this happens. An example of this is the “third variable” problem, in which there is another variable that better explains the relationship between generational cohort membership and some work value or attitude. In many circumstances this “third variable” is tenure or job position (1; 7) or characteristics about the job (e.g., meaningful work; 8). Furthermore, it is common for researchers to incorrectly attribute changes in the types of jobs that younger people work today as a reflection of that cohort’s personal preference rather than external changes in the work environment (9). For example, Millennials are increasingly working in jobs that require them to work more closely with others and use more specialized skills. This is inappropriately attributed to an internal preference of Millennials; when it is more accurately due to how the workplace itself is changing across time (9).
Finally, it is hard to overlook the conceptual issues when it comes to generational cohort assumptions, particularly the lack of consensus on operational definitions of generations (how to actually define these cohorts). For instance, there are multiple, conflicting birth date cut offs defining when one generation ends and another begins (10). There is also little agreement in what the group characteristics are for each cohort. This lack of consensus in the construct definition has resulted in generational groups being referred to as “fuzzy social constructs” by researchers (10).
Why are assumptions based on generational differences so popular?
The practice of assigning characteristics or stereotypes to generational groups has existed for thousands of years. Throughout history, older generations have been quoted as skeptical of the younger generation, and the younger generation skeptical of the older generation. There is a reason why we have this tendency, and it is due to our human nature. There is an abundance of psychological theories to explain why we engage in making generalizations about groups of people. Cohorts work as cognitive heuristics, which are mental shortcuts to help us make sense of our world by grouping people into categories to help us organize our world and make quick judgements. A phenomenon that comes along with this is to judge other generational groups we do not belong to more harshly than our own, and this can be explained by several theoretical frameworks in psychology, including Social Identity theory. According to this theory we are more likely to express preference for in-groups we belong to and more negative assessments/judgments of out-groups in order to maintain self-concept and enhance self-esteem (11).
Why is this important?
Perceived intergenerational differences are usually unsubstantiated and can contribute to workplace tension. This can also predispose workers to conflict even before they ever interact (12). When people feel they are pushed into an out-group or sense discrimination, common responses include a decrease in organizational commitment and attachment to the organization (13), higher stress and anxiety levels (14), and higher levels of turnover and decreased job satisfaction (15).
How can we proceed?
After reviewing the research, it is possible to come to the conclusion that generational differences are overemphasized and drawing attention to generational differences in the workplace can lead to more conflict than clarity. It would be wise to avoid making important business decisions based on generational assumptions, and to prevent a work culture of in-groups and out-groups in order to avoid needless conflict. Rather than working from assumptions, we would encourage companies to collect data to answer important questions and to use best practices for all employees, regardless of generational cohort membership. Leaders should also focus on bringing all employees into the in-group and promote an inclusive culture.
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