Research Answers 10 Questions about Generational Differences in the Workplace

Summary of:

Rudolph, C., Rauvola, R., Costanza, D., & Zacher, H. (2020, In Press). “Answers to 10 questions about “generations” and “generational differences” in the workplace” (2020). Public Policy & Aging Report.

Background & Theory:

Given that the modern workplace often allows for interactions among older and younger co-workers, “generations” and “generational differences” have commonly been used to describe a number of work-related phenomena, such as “generational workplace conflict.”

However, research suggests that the ideas of generations and generational differences are actually social constructions. Due to its socially constructed nature, it is commonly believed that differences in generations show up as actual differences between individuals. Since there is a lack of homogeneity with members in each given generational category, “generational differences” cannot be supported by research.

In fact, while attempts to manage generational differences in a workplace setting is honorable, it may do more harm than good. This literature review uses this theory to answer 10 questions about “generations” and “generational differences” in the workplace.

Question(s):

Research was compiled to answer the following questions:

    1. What does research say about the influence of generational differences on work processes and outcomes?
    2. What does research say about intergenerational conflict and potential in the workplace?
    3. If I compare people born between 19XX & 19YY with people born between 20XX & 20YY, aren’t I comparing people from different generations?
    4. Is there any way to study generational differences?
    5. Should organizations base HR policies and practice (e.g., benefits, recruitment) on generational differences?
    6. Should organizations market themselves differently to members of different generations?
    7. How can I encourage positive intergenerational exchanges in my organization?
    8. What does the notion of generational differences mean for organizational policy?
    9. What does the notion of generational differences mean for economic and labor policies?
    10. My managers and employees tell me they see differences between generations. What should I tell them?

Methods:

This literature review on the topic of “generations” and “generational differences” is the result of analyzing 49 past studies and other resources.

Results:

For the first question, research indicates that between generations, there really aren’t many differences in the core values of the individuals within those generations. These values include things such as commitment to the organization, the likelihood of being involved in turnover, and work ethic. Additionally, there is no empirical evidence that supports adapting leadership style to each generation. In short, generational differences do not have much influence over work processes and outcomes. Current research on generational differences is inconsistent, contradictory, and overgeneralized.

For the second question, research shows that intergenerational contact in the workplace can have both positive and negative effects. For example, some employees may discriminate based on generalizations of certain age or generational groups through contact. However, research also suggests that contact with people within various age groups can reduce age-based prejudice.

For the third question, comparing individuals that were born from different decades cannot be labeled as a generational comparison according to research. There are a plethora of factors that can contribute to differences among age groups. Simply referring to these differences as generational isn’t seeing the full picture. Arbitrarily grouping individuals into a category does not allow for anything to be said about individual characteristics.

For the fourth question, there is no way to study generational differences. As long as “generations” are defined as being born within a certain time frame, the separation of age, period, and group effects is statistically intractable.

For the fifth question, organizations should not base HR policies and practice on generational differences unless they wish to engage in potentially discriminatory practices. Research does not suggest recruiting or offering benefits to employees on the basis of age or generation. Rather, the organization should implement policies that accommodate workers across the work lifespan and support a climate of positive age diversity.

For the sixth question, organizations should not market themselves differently to members of different generations. Rather, they should make positioning decisions based on what makes them attractive or unattractive to potential employees.

For the seventh question, research suggests there are a number of ways to benefit from age-diverse organizations in a positive manner. It has been found that age-inclusive human resource policies have a positive impact on the performance of the organization and positively impacts employee health. Individually, mutual respect and quality of communication is key to successful inter-age collaborations.

For the eighth question, using generations as a framework to customize organizational HR policies is based upon the incorrect thought process that generations exist, and therefore need to be managed. It is more applicable and relevant for organizations to apply policies that address trends of differences that apply to everyone in the workforce.

For the ninth question, there are strong cases to be made against utilizing generations as a basis for formulating economic and labor policies. For example, a generational approach to formulating an economic and labor policy may be that millennials should not receive unemployment benefits when laid off because many still live with their parents. The absurdity of this idea is palpable because it follows the broken logic of using generations as a basis for policymaking.

For the tenth question, while socially acceptable, “seeing generational differences” represents a form of ageism. Like other discriminatory notions, generational difference thinking can have pernicious effects at work. Many methods exist to inform others of the fallacy of thinking in generational differences. One method is to provide examples of generational stereotypes throughout recorded history and ask if today’s claims truly seem different from those assumptions.

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this research, we can take away this key insight:

  • Specifically in the workplace, making decisions based on generational understanding is riddled with stereotypes and false thinking. Generational differences are a thinly veiled but more socially acceptable form of ageism. Moreover, research does not suggest making policy or organizational decisions based on generational presuppositions.

Final Takeaways

For Consultants: While there may be some differences in age among individuals, grouping similarly aged people into generational categories and stereotyping them does not accurately define each individual. Guiding organizations to a place where such stereotyping does not occur is important for limiting workplace conflict.

For Everyone: Understanding people through a generational framework does not allow for the full picture. Especially in the workplace, recognizing your own biases and challenging them can be helpful for minimizing workplace conflict.