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Generational Differences at Work Are Marketing Hype

Understanding engagement through universal needs, not generational stereotypes.

Key points

  • Generational differences are minimal and often exaggerated.
  • Focus on managing perceptions, not supposed generational gaps.
  • Misleading stereotypes harm workplace dynamics and employee attitudes.

For the first time in history, five different generations are working together. Over the next decade, Millennials will become the majority of the workforce. What are their aspirations? Their behaviors? How should they be managed?

Unfortunately, these discussions are rarely backed 2by empirical data; most arguments are based on intuitive and generalized observations. Additionally, the concept of "generations" seems to mainly benefit the interests of numerous consultants.

Limited scientific support

Millennials want flexibility and transparency, Generation Z needs more security due to economic, environmental, and health crises, and Generation X values salary over a company's innovation capabilities. These stereotypes, naively shared by reputable institutions, are proven wrong when confronted with scientific realities. The differences between generations are much smaller than popular belief suggests, and academic research generally fails to demonstrate significant differences. In short, generational gaps are more of a myth than a substantiated theory. Studies and meta-analyses show nearly non-existent differences between generations in (1) work attitudes, (2) personality, (3) career mobility, conformity to norms, or overtime work, (4) reasons for resignation or motivations to accept a new position.

Similarly, contrary to the myth, there is no increase in narcissistic tendencies across generations. Narcissistic traits are more closely linked to life stages and age rather than generational affiliation. Younger generations appear more narcissistic not because they are different from previous ones, but because narcissism is more pronounced during youth. Some differences are thus attributed to supposed generational effects when they are actually part of our natural evolution and maturation. Indeed, while personality is not easily malleable, it is not set in stone.

A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies shows that young adulthood is the most critical life stage for personality development, and throughout adolescence, traits become more stable, peaking at age 25. Additionally, potential future changes, particularly between ages 20 and 40, mostly see people becoming more agreeable, emotionally stable, conscientious, and dominant.

Worse, when studies do identify differences, the individual variability within a single generation is greater than that between generations. In other words, individuals within the same cohort are more different from each other than from those in different generations. The proliferation of blind empiricism and credulous opinions has contributed to misleading management practices, potentially leading to harmful consequences and contradicting legal, conceptual, practical, and theoretical foundations.

In light of these findings, it is imperative to shift the focus from managing generational differences to managing perceptions related to generations. This shift is crucial to avoid reinforcing stereotypes and modern ageism.

Negative effects

With each new event, new generations are proposed, further normalizing age-based stereotyping: recently, some have attempted to conceptualize a Covid-19 generation. Research highlights the emergence of individual perceptions, including both what an individual believes about members of other generations (stereotypes) and what they think other groups believe about their own group (meta-stereotypes).

These studies show that both older and younger workers believe others perceive them more negatively than they actually do, and these stereotypes and meta-stereotypes are not accurate. However, they have critical implications for the workplace:

  1. Age-related biases negatively affect the quality of training and performance evaluations for older individuals, particularly in the context of new technologies.
  2. Being labeled as a Baby Boomer leads to more negative judgments in recruitment, training, and conflict management scenarios.
  3. Individuals react with defiance or threat to meta-stereotypes, which can create conflicts or avoidance behaviors.
  4. These stereotypes are internalized, causing individuals to conform to behavioral expectations.

Consequently, perceiving oneself as belonging to the same generation as colleagues positively impacts work-related attitudes and behaviors.

Conversely, employees who work with colleagues perceived as belonging to different generations report more negative stereotypes, an increased perception of an age-discriminatory climate, and more negative work attitudes and behaviors.

These conclusions, however, are a direct result of artificial and arbitrary segmentation into distinct generations. While most individuals do not identify with a specific generation, these classifications are often promoted by pseudo-experts seeking recognition. These individuals fuel the fire of stereotypes, obscuring the fact that, intrinsically, generational differences do not exist. Additionally, people tend to notice differences rather than similarities, especially when those differences pose problems. Thus, if we believe in generational disparities, we're likely to find evidence to support them, driven by confirmation bias. It would be wiser to minimize the existence of these differences rather than exacerbate them through coarse categorizations and hasty generalizations.

Everyone wants the same thing

Instead of perpetuating a misleading view of generational gaps in hopes of managing them more effectively, it's better to focus on a fundamental understanding of work engagement, rooted in historical and scientific perspectives.

At its core, engagement manifests as a process of psychological identification with work, where individuals find their identity in their activities. It involves how individuals interpret, value, and appropriate their work, find meaning in it, and how their work meets their needs.

Understanding engagement, therefore, requires grasping the universal needs of everyone. From an anthropological standpoint, human beings share three universal needs intrinsic to our nature, society, and evolution. The first is the need for community and social connection, reflecting our social nature. The second need is for personal progression: a desire for advancement and distinction within our hierarchical structures. Finally, the third need is to make sense of the world, to find a cause, and to have an impact. This need is the lens through which we analyze and interpret the world.

These three needs (community, career, and cause) constitute the core values that drive everyone at work. Regardless of their supposed generational affiliation, everyone seeks to identify the what, who, and why of their professional activity.

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