- It's common to think or hear that there are generational differences in some personality traits.
- Recent research tracking people over time helps disentangle how much change is due to maturation versus generational cohort.
- With coworkers, we may "see" generalities based on their generation, rather than recognize the complexities of our similarities and differences.
We frequently hear, “Well, you know, generation ABC is more (or less) . . . [fill in the blank with a specific characteristic].” The implication is that there is some factor related to how members of a particular generation were raised, or what they were exposed to culturally, resulting in people of that cohort differing from members of previous generations. But how accurate are these claims?
The answer is not straightforward, but a recent study helps point to some factors and general trends that are important to note. The study was based on more than 4,700 respondents who completed self-report personality measures at multiple points in adulthood. The sample consisted of residents of Seattle who were surveyed about their personality every seventh year, starting in 1963 (up to 2014). The sample is not representative of the United States, let alone people across cultures. Still, the findings fit with previous research on age and personality.
Personality researchers typically focus on the Big 5 personality domains. Rather than individual traits, each domain consists of a cluster of traits that occur together in general. Similar to previous research, this study revealed that people in general display similar shifts in some of the Big 5 personality domains as they age. Specifically, in this sample, as people aged, they tended to report greater conscientiousness and agreeableness, and less negative emotionality and openness. In some ways, this is probably what people mean by “maturing” as we age. We tend to become more responsible, perhaps bit easier going, and less likely to be rocked emotionally by life’s ups and downs due to greater experience and perspective. At the same time, there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype that later in life we may be less open to different ways of thinking and living. It’s important to note that these are general trends, and any two individuals of the same age can (and often do) differ substantially.
What about generation or cohort effects? The researchers found that, indeed there were some general trends regarding differences across cohorts. Specifically, compared to the earlier generations in the sample, the more recent ones tended to score higher on extraversion and openness and lower on agreeableness and negative emotionality (when compared at the same ages in life). The researchers noted that the more recent cohorts were better educated, so one possible part of the explanation is that increases in higher education promoted sociability and initiative, openness to new ways, and socioeconomic stability (and hence less negative emotionality).
These research findings refer to trends and group differences, but there is much more variation across individuals within any cohort than there is difference between generations. When we encounter differences with a younger or older coworker, it is tempting to attribute the difference to generational effects. Research points to the fact that some portion of the differences between older and younger adults in their traits is due to maturing rather than something related to having been born and raised during a particular period in history. This explains why, since the earliest recorded text, older adults have complained about “the youth” as no longer exhibiting the qualities the older adults feel sure they possessed as younger adults.
We also tend to notice differences more than similarities, especially when those differences are problematic for us. If we believe that there are noticeable generational differences, we are particularly likely to notice “evidence” of such differences (the phenomenon known as confirmation bias). Another inherent cognitive bias is referred to as the outgroup homogeneity bias. This is the human tendency to view members of groups to which we don’t belong (like other generational cohorts) as less diverse than we view our own group. So, it is easy to “see” generalizations as accurate when it comes to characterizing a younger or older cohort of coworkers.
There are potential risks in falling prey to these tendencies to overgeneralize, underappreciate diversity, and fail to see commonalities we share with older and younger coworkers. These include viewing someone in a negative light, possibly even “writing them off,” based on perceived generational traits. The missed opportunity to build closer relationships, especially around the appreciation of both similarities we share and differences we can tap into for help, makes our work life less enjoyable and possibly less productive.
The next time you hear someone say, “Well, you know, generation ABC is more (or less) . . .,” or you think it yourself, you might respond, “Well, it isn’t quite that simple.”
Acting Like a Baby Boomer? Birth-Cohort Differences in Adults’ Personality Trajectories During the Last Half a Century (2022). Naemi D. Brandt, Johanna Drewelies, Sherry L. Willis, K. Warner Schaie, Nilam Ram, Denis Gerstorf, and Jenny Wagner. Psychological Science, Vol. 33, pgs. 382-396.