A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Generations at Work

Does it matter if you come from Generation X or Y?

Some call them generations, others cohorts. And each has its own label, be it ‘Traditionalists’/ ‘Old Fogey’s;’ ‘Baby Boomers’/’The Spoilt-Sixties Generation’. Then there is ‘Generation X’: that often lamented lost generation, and the hopeful ‘Millennials’.

Generations are distinguishable most by their attitudes and values, shaped by their personal experiences. Growing up at a particular time and place often leaves a very strong mark on individuals. After all, societies try to socialise people into a set of beliefs and values about all the big issues: right/wrong; good/bad; just/unjust; fair/unfair.

Most people within a cohort supposedly fail to see the power of the forces on them that shape their views. They see only differences and variability between themselves and are often unaware of the similarities. Paradoxically, they see other generations as ‘all the same’ and often treat them with suspicion, while noticing how varied their own generation is. In psychobabble this is called ‘out group homogeneity’ and ‘in group heterogeneity’.

Inevitably, generational differences play out in the workplace. Traditionalists are, it is said, products of the safe and secure fifties. They were and are cautious, conformist, conservative. They prefer structure and security. They understand loyalty and the concept of a career. They weren’t and aren’t very mobile and therefore have little experience of any type of diversity. They knew and accepted class divisions inside and outside work and experienced relatively little technological change. Most are now quietly retired doing the garden and falling off the perch at a significant rate.

The Baby Boomers were shaped by the turbulent sixties when they challenged the assumptions and what they saw to be the complacency of their elders. This was the generation of civil rights, Woodstock, moon-landings, sit-ins, hi-jackings and nuclear power. Think Hippies and Flower-power, but also Vietnam and race riots.

The Baby Boomers were anti-conformist and anti-hierarchical. They did not like uniforms or uniformity. They were happy to experiment. And many enjoyed shocking others. They were rebels with a cause. And they were often disruptive at work. They distrusted authority and like change for change’s sake. 

Some have refused to age gracefully and enjoy shocking their children with their outrageous behaviour. The “alternative” family in the various “Fockers” films nicely sums up the type.

Generation Xers were shaped by the turbulent times of the 70s and 80s. They experienced the worst depression since the 30s. They saw the rise of the women’s movement, the green lobby, and the end of manufacturing industry in the UK. They also witnessed the massive advance in computer technology and use. More importantly they saw mass unemployment, and compulsory redundancy. They saw the last gasp of the old trades unions, militant Thatcherism and the Winter of Discontent. It was not a pretty picture.

Generation Xers often got a bad press at work. They were neither conformist, nor anti-conformist. If anything they tended to be alienated. They felt little loyalty to those who showed little loyalty to them. They were the ‘me’ not the ‘we’ generation who were told ‘greed is good’. They saw the world at work as a jungle and survival of the fittest as the name of the game.

Millenials joined the world of work around the year 2000. They had been shaped by the 90s: the end of the USSR; the unification of Germany; the end of apartheid. And most of all globalisation. Technology shrank the world and therefore profoundly affected it.

Thus we are told we have to be very sensitive to generational differences and how to manage then. Baby Boomers are from Mars, Millennials from Venus.

Different generations have very different expectations of the world of work. That is the message, but it is simple-minded, guru-led, tosh. It is based on the assumption that attitudes to and behaviour at work are powerfully shaped by early socialisation. That socioeconomic and political events that shaped one’s early life left such an impression as to make us all all carriers of a time capsule.

This is wrong on three counts. First, it ignores the simple act of ageing. People do change over time to some extent and so the Millenials may end up just like the Baby Boomers at the same age and stage. Second, it assumes that social experience is more powerful than ability, personality, and values in shaping work attitudes and behaviours. Put a dozen people in the room of similar age and see how different they are as a function of their education, social class and personality. Third, it make arbitrary cut off points for categorisation just as historians used classify the reigns of monarchs. So born a few years either side of a date and you change category. 

And the evidence? A serious meta-analysis published in the Journal of Business and Psychology (2012, 27, 375-394). Two quotes: “The pattern of results indicates that the relationships between generational membership and work-related outcomes are moderate to small, essentially zero in many cases” and also “….differences that appear to exist are likely attributable to factors other than generational membership”. 

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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