What Generational Differences Impact Learning at Work?
What research shows about generational trends.
Posted May 31, 2019 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
What generational differences should you understand as you think about learning and development? I’ll cover two of them in this post, but please also add your thoughts and comments below as well.
In examining generational differences, I’ll admit that by and large, I am a skeptic. Most differences seem overblown and are more likely an impact of age rather than generation (e.g. most people in their 20s tend to be more idealistic, rather than those in their 20s right now being part of the “idealistic generation.”) Nevertheless, social norms do change over time and it’s hard not to see how the Great Depression and World War II shaped the dispositions of a large portion of the population in recognizable ways.
Skepticism about generational differences is fairly easy to voice, but it can be like wielding a machete that chops down the whole jungle without discriminating what plants (ideas) might have some merit. It can close us off from seeking to understand how our culture is shifting, however difficult this might be to pinpoint. This is difficult terrain to examine scientifically, as it requires longitudinal research far beyond the time horizon of most research agendas.
In addition to pinpointing exactly what generational differences exist, it is difficult to know why. Differences are often stated in descriptive terms without any theoretical rationale. It is not hard to understand why the generation that grew-up in the Great Depression would be thriftier, but many differences are presented without any explanation (e.g. “Millennials prefer extrinsic rewards”). These complications are well-understood and tempt one to take a machete to dismiss the entire jungle.
Furthermore, in asking about generational differences and learning and development, if you primarily view the mind as a biological entity, then the question is ludicrous. The biological make-up of our mind wouldn’t evolve in any perceivable way over the course of a few decades. Of course, however, the mind is both a product of our biological heritage and the culture we are enmeshed in. Thus, the question becomes, have cultural values (and technology) shifted in some distinguishable way that impacts how we might engage in learning and development?
It was into this jungle that I went searching for some credible evidence that might shed light on this question.
First, it helps to know what are generally perceived as generational cohorts.
- Silent Generation (born 1925-1945)
- Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)
- Generation X (born 1965-1979)
- Millennials (also known as GenMe or GenY, born 1980-1994)
- iGen (born after approximately 1995)
Of course, as Jean Twenge (2017) aptly argues in her book iGen, there is no drastic difference between individuals born on either side of these cutoffs. However, individuals born approximately 10 years apart in these cohorts would have had a different cultural experience.
From the evidence I reviewed (mostly peer-reviewed articles and Jean Twenge’s book iGen, but also data from the Monitoring the Future study of high school seniors that began in 1975), there are two considerations that I could discern in seeking to understand generational differences with regard to learning and development at work.
By many metrics, there is a greater concern with safety among those in the most recent generational cohort, in particular around avoiding risk. This may be the result of well-intentioned parenting practices that help children and teenagers avoid risky behavior. Twenge (2017) reports that in a nationally representative sample of individuals in 8th and 10th grade, 50 percent of them in the 1990s agreed with the statement “I like to test myself every now and then by doing something a little risky,” but by 2015 that number had reduced to 40 percent (p. 153). This, along with reducing number of teenagers getting a driver’s license (around a 15 percent drop of high school seniors over the last 40 years, Twenge, 2017, p. 26), and parents who always know where their kids are, leads to a portrait of a generation that is more accustomed to being kept safe.
If I had to bet, this is connected (and will continue to be so) with a greater focus on “psychological safety” at work. Psychological safety is defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking” (Edmondson, 1999). It is measured by asking whether mistakes will be held against you and whether team members are able to bring up problems and tough issues. Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School has completed highly-regarded research about psychological safety and how it impacts team learning. In a recent book, I advocated for psychological safety as a means to foster great transparency and organizational learning.
The term also gained more widespread attention after Charles Duhigg published an article in the New York Times Magazine in February of 2016 titled “What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” In the article, Duhigg discusses Google’s extensive research of itself to uncover the essentials of great teams. The punch line, as you might guess, is psychological safety.
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How can you increase psychological safety at work? In efforts where psychological safety was central to a change initiative, the results have been mixed (Edmonson, 2004). In a comprehensive initiative at Prudential Financial that was aimed at making individuals feel safe to speak up (partly because of prior ethical infractions), Edmondson (2004) concludes, “Psychological safety is not created by telling people to feel safe: it is a byproduct of leadership action and example occurring in the context of doing real work” (p. 11, emphasis in original). Thus, psychological safety is best seen as a means to an end, as a way to facilitate idea sharing in the pursuit of “real work,” not as a pursuit in itself.
Thus, to the extent that you are managing a team, or developing learning programs for those just entering the workforce, you’ll want to have some recognition of psychological safety; not as a central focus, but through modeling some acceptance of what can be learned from mistakes. Of course, this is open to lots of critiques about “coddling a generation” (see Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018), which is fair, but it’s helpful to have a better contextual understanding of subtle generational shifts that may be occurring.
Smartphones, Distractions, and Limitless Content Choices
Central to any understanding of current generational differences is how the smartphone impacts one’s development. This is central to Jean Twenge’s thesis in iGen, and owning a smartphone understandably shifts how we experience the world. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and Twenge cites a 2015 marketing survey that 2 out of 3 U.S. teens own an iPhone (p. 2). If the statistic was that teen smartphone ownership was closer to 100 percent, I wouldn't doubt it. The question becomes: how does smartphone usage impact a generation entering the workforce? A full treatment of this question is beyond the scope of this post, and longitudinal evidence has not been established (for an excellent review, see Wilmer, Sherman, & Chein, 2017), but one obvious influence of the smartphone on our cognition is that it likely scatters our attention. It can do so exogenously—by text alerts, etc.—but also endogenously, as Wilmer et al. (2017) state:
“Endogenous interruptions occur when the user’s own thoughts drift toward a smartphone-related activity, and thereby evince an otherwise unsolicited drive to begin interacting with the device. These endogenously driven drifts of attention might arise from a desire for more immediate gratification when ongoing goal-directed activities are not perceived as rewarding” (p. 4).
There have been correlational studies that link high “media multitasking” and an ability to sustain attention (for a review see van der Schuur et al., 2015), but no longitudinal studies that can determine causality (to my knowledge). Whether smartphone usage throughout early adolescence has a unique impact during that developmental period compared to impacting individuals of all ages equally remains to be seen.
A potential decline in sustain attention may be evident in the decline of reading. As Twenge (2017) cites, among high school seniors in 1976, 10 percent of students said they did not read for pleasure the prior year, but by 2015 that number increased to 30 percent (p. 61). Additionally, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, over 50 percent of high school seniors “read a book or magazine nearly every day.” That number has steadily declined over the years, and by 2015, now only 16 percent of high school seniors agree with this statement. As Twenge states, “For a generation raised to click on the next link or scroll to the next page within seconds, books just don’t hold their attention.” As one 12-year old she interviewed states, “I’m not really a big reading person. It’s hard for me to read the same book for such a long time. I just can’t sit still and be super quiet” (p. 61).
Of course, the cause of the decline of reading books would be multifarious, however, the smartphone and our access to limitless content has to be acknowledged. By and large, it is an experience of life where one is less accustomed to focused concentration or engaging in what Cal Newport (2016) calls "deep work," which he defines as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (p. 3).
Given the greater difficulties of sustaining attention—a difficulty that may be more pronounced for iGen, all of this ramps up the standards it takes to engage individuals, and suggests the obvious tactic of frequent breaks for any training event as well as setting the friendly ground rule of “being present.” It also suggests taking proactive measures to create less distraction in the workplace (counter to the open-office movement). Given we are already dealing with an internally-driven desire to shift our attention, we can at least make an effort to combat distractions in our environment.
In sum, pinpointing precise generational differences and how they impact work is complex, especially disentangling what are the natural inclinations of age and career stage compared to generation shifts that are unlike anything that has occurred before. In addition, we are dealing with subtle shifts in cultural norms over decades. While I have outlined two things to consider that may be generational, please comment below on your own experiences as well.
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2), 350-383.
Edmondson, A. (2004). Teaching Note: Safe to Say at Prudential Financial. 5-604-021. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.
Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. New York: Penguin Press.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Twenge, J. M. (2017). iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy—and completely unprepared for adulthood—and what that means for the rest of us. New York: Atria Books.
van der Schuur, W., Baumgartner, S. E., Sumter, S. R., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2015). The consequences of media multitasking for youth: A review. Computers in Human Behavior, 53, 204-215.
Wilmer, H. H., Sherman, L. E., Chein, J. M. (2017). Smartphones and cognition: A review of research exploring the links between mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1-16.