Is There Really a Generational Divide at Work?Natalia Persin
Five generations make up the current workforce. A larger percentage of sixty-plus people are working now than ever before. On the other end of the spectrum, young people are starting their careers earlier thanks to early and continuous access to the internet and computers to branch out from traditional school curricula on their own.
Are there significant differences in the goals and behaviors of working millennials, baby boomers, zoomers, and Gen Xers at their jobs? Does this demographic divide create problems for managers and companies?
These groups don’t have uniform characteristics by virtue of their ages. Some research indicates that there are far more differences between workers of the same age than there are between older and younger ones. But that doesn’t mean the generational divide doesn’t exist at all.
Read on for further consideration of the generational divide and how professional creatives can harness this knowledge to promote employee age diversity regardless of their position within a company.
The Generational Divide: A Brief Summary
Generations the way we think of them now began to take shape a little less than 150 years ago. Up until the 19th century, the term ‘generation’ was used on a more individual level to describe (male) lineages within one family. But by the 1860s its definition had transformed into something like the one we have today.
The sociologist Karl Manheim proposed the Theory of Generations in a 1928 essay that essentially argued that people were affected and formed in part by social and cultural events of their youth. Following this line of inquiry, we can see how each successive group of 20-somethings might be viewed as a cohort – if not by some divine natural law then because they all had shared experiences that made them similar.
This idea is of particular relevance to professionals, working people, and the companies who need to bring them all together under one roof to accomplish goals and keep business moving. But is this idea, the principal driver of the ‘generational divide’, as real in fact as it sometimes appears to be according to anecdotal evidence?
Millennials vs. Gen-X vs. Boomers vs. Zoomers vs. Gen Z vs….
If you pay attention to popular media at all and have been for at least a decade, you already know about the articles that spring up periodically to try and explain some new aspect of the current youth. For most of the early naughts, millennials were the target. Millennials were alleged to have killed or been in the process of killing everything from marriage to the gambling industry because of their unique predispositions.
Of those predispositions, some of the most frequently touted were a high valuation on long-term relationships, technological intuition, and a desire for meaningful experiences, especially at work. How does that stack up with what people were saying about the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers when they were the upstarts? And do people speak about Generation Z the same way now?
By way of comparison, we can look at how TIME Magazine wrote about the Silent Generation, the one that preceded Baby Boomers. In an article from 1951 entitled “The Younger Generation,” TIME wrote that the Silent Generation was “grave and fatalistic,” quoting some young people talking about how the possibility of getting drafted to fight in Korea put a damper on their lives, preventing them from making plans and discouraging them from making long-term plans for marriage or college.
To their credit, TIME magazine described the youth as taking the grim prospect of war with “extraordinary calm” but that didn’t prevent the article from closing by mentioning that the Silent Generation “never hoped for much” and will not strike out voraciously from “security, wealth, and stability,” which the youth will serve because it is the best thing to do.
The Silent Generation so described went on to speak quite differently about the youth of later decades. Partly because they didn’t face the seismic economic shifts and worldwide conflicts that their parents had by the time they reached their twenties, the Boomer generation was seen as spoiled, entitled, and disrespectful.
Perhaps it’s because the Silent Generation by and large sought to give their children comforts that weren’t possible in the 40s and 50s. Whatever the myriad causes for this change in perception of the youth in 20 short years, it was the beginning of a pattern that repeated until the 21st century.
From the Boomers on, each new generation has seemed to think less of the youth that succeeded them. Entitlement, laziness, and even weakness became common criticisms to levy at the youth once middle age was reached.
Today, the trend for people writing on the Generation Question is to talk about Generation Alpha, the children of Millenials who will be the first generation to grow up entirely in the 21st century. Dates of Birth for generation Alpha begin in 2010 and the outlook for them appears to indicate that they will hold more job titles than their parents and live in more places.
How do we draw such conclusions? Do they have any basis in reality, and can we trust them when we discuss the generational divide in the workplace today? Let’s take a look at some of the psychology of generational conflict to see what’s useful and what is more likely to be mere projection from the older crowd.
Talkin’ Bout My Generation
People love to talk about their generation. For many, the shared experiences mentioned by Karl Manheim probably play a role. Nostalgia holds powerful sway over many people and we tend to get nostalgic about our youth as we continue to age. Think about all the social media posts that appeal to 90s kids and people who were alive before the advent of the internet.
One fascinating study sought to find a more conclusive reason why people have been complaining about “kids these days” for thousands – yes, thousands – of years. Some possible reasons that adults disparage the youth given in the study were that they were basing their criticisms on particular traits or that their superiority was nothing more than an extension of the general mislaid confidence in one’s own ability that most of us fall victim to from time to time.
The study found that the participants didn’t disparage the youth generally. Most thought the new generation was not less intelligent than their predecessors. What the researchers found most notable about the results of the study was that the participants seemed to be more critical in areas where they themselves were highly skilled.
For instance, people who read a lot were more likely to feel that kids these days don’t read enough. People who responded with more authoritative responses to questions reported feeling that kids didn’t respect authority enough. The researchers surmised that this was due to a sort of cognitive bias involving the projection of oneself onto the youth – a process that doesn’t appear to work the same way when applied to previous generations when they were young.
The Generational Divide at Work
This sort of mental bias can also cause problems in the workplace. Lots of the anxiety about the effects from generational conflict are very likely due to people projecting themselves onto others. In many scenarios, they could also have misconceptions about certain generations and treat people differently simply because of their age.
Older and younger generations can both fall victim to this sort of treatment. Older employees might be viewed incorrectly as “dinosaurs” who don’t understand the internet or new digital platforms even though they’ve learned how to use more widely varied tech than younger people have. Millennial workers could be viewed as spoiled or naive for seeking more meaning and satisfaction from their work even though most people probably prefer the same conditions if they can find them.
Some generational characteristics are fair assumptions and others aren’t. Like all other demographic data, age should be one element of the background knowledge applied to the workforce and not the inspiration for action all on its own.
Managers are facing greater employee age diversity than they ever have before. That’s great news in terms of varied experience, but it also presents a new challenge. Can a team with widely varying ages be brought together into a cohesive unit, or will many unique approaches be required to keep everyone happy and moving toward a common goal?
Personal Biases & The Generational Divide
We already touched on the way personal memory biases can affect the way we think about kids these days with the study in the previous section. It’s vital for managers and other decision-makers concerned with multi-generational teams to do everything possible to prevent personal biases from impacting the workplace.
The age of important decision-makers is important. Is it a young new hire who has to manage older employees or is a seasoned industry vet facing a team of working Millennials? In either case, the personal opinion of the manager could cause them to mistreat or write off otherwise successful employees. They could also be choosing the wrong approach to team communication because of the age of their employees.
Sociologists like Manheim and others who study the generational divide have already pointed out that grouping people together according to their shared experience of large-scale events and age at a given point is problematic. People don’t react to events in the same way no matter if they’re the same people in every other regard, so assigning large swathes of the population any kind of identity based on their being part of any given generation is unlikely to be accurate.
Yet managers and other important business leaders are nonetheless talking about working Millennials now the same way they were about Baby Boomers joining the workforce decades ago and the same way they will in all likelihood talk anxiously about Generations Z and Alpha when they, too, come of age.
The main reason so many thought leaders and managers are still concerned with the generational divide despite it being largely the product of unfounded biases is that age does still factor in at the workplace. Finding employees with experience probably means looking among older candidates and people will have differing insights based on their age.
Like they do in so many other areas, managers are looking for the magic bullet when they talk about the generational divide. While it would be far easier if every one of a certain age responded to each event in the same or even similar ways, that’s just not the way people are.
That doesn’t mean the generational gap is a total myth or that it has no relevance for team leaders who want to facilitate the best possible work from the people around them.
Advantages of Employee Age Diversity
Diversity is a huge plus for any team. Putting people from different backgrounds together encourages original thinking and novel approaches. Your team should look like the wide public their products are intended for.
Employee age diversity works on this level too. The market comprises members of the Silent Generation, Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, Gen-Z, and the parents of Generation Alpha. If you want to reach people with your messaging and entice them with your products and services, a certain level of understanding is imperative.
Lest we commit the error of assuming all people of a certain age are identical and think identically, it bears repeating that this isn’t one neat trick to magically make your products appealing to all ages. But it only makes sense that a team made up of only 23 to 28-year-olds is highly unlikely to have a diverse enough viewpoint to troubleshoot and identify pain points for every age group.
Employee age diversity also creates a better workplace environment and keeps talent happy long-term. Imagine you’re a creative just settling into their first job – everyone at the office is 24 years old, which makes sense because the company itself is also young. What if the same (nonexistent) age range exists at a company that’s been around for 15 years?
It would be clear that there is a high turnover rate. There’s no future with that company, so you start making plans to leave and keep your eyes on opportunities elsewhere.
Not only that but working with people from older generations gives young folks secondhand experience of things they’ll never have the chance to do again. Even if it’s just chatting about the old days, old approaches still offer insight for the present day and the problems of the future.
Working in the opposite direction, people who already have decades-long careers often find new energy and motivation from those just setting out in the industry. As long as management gives talent the room to innovate, good ideas can also help keep senior talent around just like it does for newer employees.
Inclusion is the key to successful employee age diversity. It’s not enough to merely hire a bunch of people from different generations. They have to feel heard and truly included in the business and future of the company if you want them to be happy and produce the best work. So if you do have five generations on the same team, the trick may not be one new product that appeals to both working Millennials and boomers.
Just remember that personal opinions about generations can get in the way of seeing the best solution. Include frequent employee feedback and involve them in problem-solving to make sure biases have the smallest possible impact.
Working millennials are no longer the only generation of concern to managers and business leaders. As Gen Z and Alpha make their way toward working age, many have begun to worry that they will have radically different expectations from their jobs.
Doubtless, some of them will. Others won’t. Just as some Boomers shook up the office environment when their time came, some of them didn’t. Many of the biggest changes between working Millennials and Boomers are due to technological changes and worldwide events beyond any generation’s control.
Approach the generational gap at work like you would any other diversity initiative. Strive for employee age diversity not because it’s popular but because it’s the best way to keep employees happy, facilitate great work, and build teams that deeply understand the people they’re building products for.