Generationally Based Differences in the Workplace: Is There a There There?
Blog post based on a focal article from the journal Industrial and Organizational Psychology
There is an increasingly prevalent perception that there are differences among generations and that these differences are creating unprecedented challenges for modern organizations. In response, a wide range of researchers and practitioners have tried to address the question of generational differences. One approach that has been is to assume generational differences exist and then try to figure out what organizations should do about it. Another way has been to try and figure out whether generations really are that different and, if so, why.
Regardless of approach, the main challenge in studying generational differences is the difficulty in separating out the effects of three related but very different factors: 1) age (i.e., variation attributable to life stage and maturity), 2) period (i.e., variation associated with historical time-period), and 3) cohort (i.e., variation associated shared experiences). Partitioning these effects is even more difficult because generations are typically defined as the intersection of age and period which results in variation that is inextricably inter-correlated.
While there are certainly some differences between older and younger workers, the questions are why and what to do about it. The most plausible reasons have little to nothing to do with generational membership and are more likely attributable to the age of the individuals when the study was conducted or the time period during which the data was collected. The linear dependency between age, period, and cohort makes it very difficult to isolate the unique effect of any one of the three factors and research offers numerous viable alternate explanations for observed “generational” differences.
So, what should researchers, practitioners, and organizations do? First and foremost, they should remember that generations are labels, not causes. There is little empirical evidence supporting generationally-caused differences. Further, there are plenty of viable alternate explanations for any differences that are observed. Instead, organizations should focus on real, impactful, and actual differences among workers and should resist the temptation to implement HR practices and strategies that are based on unsupported stereotypes about groups of people. The purpose of this article is to put to rest some of the myths about generations and remind researchers and consultants that appropriate, effective, and valid ways exist for organizations to deal with the real and important trends among their workers and the modern workforce.