Generational Differences at Work?

Maybe there is something to the stereotypes after all.

Posted May 31, 2013

About a month ago, I served on a Psychology Today-sponsored panel on generational differences in the workplace, a hot topic for which pop psych resources (with titles like “When Generations Collide” and “The Generational Puzzle”) abound. I reviewed a lot of the available research in the days leading up to the panel, especially San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge’s cross-temporal meta-analyses. Twenge has reported an increase in self-esteem and narcissism among the younger generation, as well external locus of control, a decreased need for social approval, an increase in anxiety and depression, and an increase in the importance of time outside of work. “As a result,” summarized Twenge and Stacy Campbell , “GenMe is likely to focus on developing skills that can be transferred from job to job, expect work to be fulfilling and to be promoted quickly, and favor flexibility and even more work-life balance that previous generations.”1

I admire Twenge’s work but have always been skeptical of claims that there are drastic differences between generations, as if the Millennials, GenX, and Boomers grew up on separate planets and met each other for the first time at the workplace. For one thing, I find Twenge’s use of “GenMe” for the younger generation to be a terribly biased choice. For another thing, I am constantly reminded of the basic truism that the differences between people within a group are always greater than the differences between groups—particularly when the differences between groups are not huge, as is the case here. For example, 75% of Boomers say they expected to view work as centrally important in life, whereas 63% of Millennials say this. That’s a statistically significant difference, but sometimes it’s interpreted to mean that Boomers care a lot about their careers and Millennials do not. Come on. 2 out of 3 Millennials still say work is centrally important. (Of course, Twenge correctly points out that “Even if the generations are more similar than they are different, it is the differences that cause problems within organizations.” Fair enough.)

With that as context, I took my place on the panel alongside two brilliant women—psychologist and author Judith Sills, and NY Times contributor and author Hannah Seligson. The discussion was lively, and the content was (in my humble opinion) very good, but it was the process that struck me as most enlightening. I was expecting a dispassionate psychological analysis, with the three of us calmly offering our “objective” takes on the issue at hand. I wasn’t expecting that, with Sills a boomer and Seligson a Millennial, I’d have to enter into the conversation as the reluctant voice of GenX. Sills and Seligson each brought her A game, both very thoughtful, sharp, and assertive heavy-hitters. I was well-prepared, and angled-in my thoughts when I found an opening, but ultimately felt a little crowded out, symbolized by my seat on the far right of the panel. I felt a little like the middle child of overachieving siblings. At some point it hit me that this experience was a microcosm of how the three generations are purported to interact. Perhaps that is why, with my inhibitory filter down, I surprised myself by saying during the Q&A that GenXers are “kind of screwed” and that their greatest fear is “insignificance.” Yikes—-did I really say that?

To be honest, I can’t say that being a GenXer has ever really been a key piece of my identity. Focused as I tend to be on the uniqueness of individuals rather than the differences between groups, I just don’t think about it much. But I do know that GenX is described as the “sandwich generation” for a reason—-Boomers and Millenials both number about 80 million, each double in size of the approximately 40 million GenXers. According to conventional wisdom, while the Boomers are clamoring for resources needed to retire (and then in many cases don’t retire after all), the Millennials have been pouring onto the scene with entitled demands for attention and opportunity. All the while, GenXers, like pragmatic slackers, mind their own business while the other two generations set the agenda. This conventional wisdom has always struck me as an exaggerated stereotype. But I’ll confess that, in the weeks since the panel, I’ve been wondering if there’s more truth to the hype than I thought.

[1] Twenge, J. M. & Campbell, S. M. (2010) Generation Me and the changing world of work. In P. Linley, S. Harrington, & N. Garcea (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work (pp. 25-35). Oxford: Oxford University Press.