Blog: Workplace Generational gaps: separating fact from fiction

Workplace Generational gaps: separating fact from fiction

by Karla Cloete

The generation gap has been well chronicled: from the avocado toast millennial to the technophobic boomers, everyone seems to have something to say. However, most workplaces today boast great age diversity.

The thinking goes that each generation has different expectations of what a good worker should be and what a great workplace should look like, creating a managerial minefield. Some might value working long unpaid hours and good retirement plans, while others want flexibility and remote work. These differences aren’t just about values and priorities, they can also affect communication and conflict styles. However, often these assumptions are based on  simple stereotypes.

What are generational stereotypes?

Stereotypes are the shortcuts we take when making judgements by generalising about a group of people. They can be harmful because they’re usually overly negative and provide incomplete pictures of who a person is.

Younger workers might assume that older generations are behind the times, that they are too conventional and closed-minded. While older generations might label their younger peers as lazy, entitled and disrespectful. Technology creates huge gaps between generations, and according to KnowledgeCity, these workers will range from digital experts to digital novices. 

One study of over two hundred workers aged 18 to 84 found an abundance of stereotypes: 

Older workers were viewed as “hardworking, responsible and mature”, but worried others viewed them as “boring, grumpy and stubborn”. Younger workers were viewed variously as “inexperienced” or “enthusiastic” but believed themselves to be labelled by others as “unmotivated and irresponsible”. This suggests that workers are very aware of the stereotypes other might harbour about them.

Stereotypes can be positive or negative. According to American Management Association:

The silent generation (born before 1964) is hard-working or old-fashioned. Baby boomers (born between 1946-1964) are loyal or narcissists. Gen X (born between 1965-1980) prioritise balance or they’re slackers. Millennials (born 1981) are innovators or massively entitled and self-involved. 

So how we define generations depends on who you are or who you ask. Or does it?

Do generational differences hold any merit? 

Jennifer J. Deal, a researcher from the Centre of Creative Leadership spent seven years and one book deep diving into the generation gap. “Our research shows that when you hold the stereotypes up to the light, they don’t cast much of a shadow,” she says.

The idea of generations was largely popularised by Karl Mannheim in 1928. The thought process was that a generation is a social unit and that its members have a shared consciousness because they were moulded by the same socio-political influences. For example, a generation that lived through the Great Depression might be more frugal and cautious. But this is an over-simplistic and deterministic way of looking at people. Especially since most people can’t even agree with the start and end dates of generations.

Does generation really shape values the way we think it does? 

Most generations actually hold the same values. Deal found family to be at the top of the list, they all fear change to the same extent and they expect pretty much the same things from their leaders, namely that they be trustworthy.

According to the 2015 review by Cambridge University Press: “There is little solid empirical evidence supporting generationally based differences and almost no theory behind why such differences should even exist.” A different 2012 meta-analysis also reported inconsistent and small differences. 

According to Harvard Business Review, there is little to no evidence to support the massive generational gaps we imagine, and any differences are actually negligible:

“A thorough analysis of 20 different studies with nearly 20,000 people revealed small and inconsistent differences in job attitudes when comparing generational groups… sweeping group differences depending on age or generation alone don’t seem to be supported.”

They went on to say: “These beliefs can get in the way of how people collaborate with their colleagues and have troubling implications for how we people are managed and trained.”

The so-called generation gap is, in large part, the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding, fuelled by common insecurities and the desire for clout,” researcher Jennifer Deal said. 

Harvard Business Review found these stereotypes deepen the generation divides- from a gap to a gaping valley riddled with unproductive workplace politics.

According to Fraser Sherman from Chron: “It also helps to realise that age and generation are only one facet of a person. Recognising individual differences and encouraging others to recognise them can help the team see past stereotypes.

One experiment found that when younger employees were training older workers, they not only had lower expectations but spent less time and delivered poorer quality training, which resulted in worse employee performance.

These workplace stereotypes aren’t only false, they can create a toxic workplace environment.

Meta-stereotypes- or the way we think about stereotypes- can be just as harmful as the stereotype itself. Worrying about what beliefs others may harbour about you. The accuracy of these beliefs are far outweighed by how deeply rooted they are. Our workplace behaviour- in conflict and collaboration- relies less on fact but is rooted more in our fears and feelings. These meta-stereotypes activate our flight and fight.

Workers might also try to the extreme to disprove stereotypes- draining their time and energy and leaving behind their unique contributions.

What can be done about generational stereotypes in the workplace?

Some experts recommend openly talking about these stereotypes to dispel myths and conjure up realities. Shared projects and joint commitments can show workers they are more similar than they’d like to imagine.

Older generations have invaluable expertise, while younger workers can tap into their peer’s innovation. Mentorship programs and brainstorms can help to diffuse knowledge and increase insight beyond age gaps.

The folks at Harvard Business review recommend perspective-taking exercises like switching roles or cooperating projects. These tactics disperse with the ‘them/us’ myth and foster a sense of ‘we’.

To assume we are all the same (and remain the same) because we were born within the same 15-year timespan is just silliness,” says Matthew Nash from Leadership Success. “It’s about time we stopped perpetuating the generation myth  - it's doing more harm than good.

We are lucky to live in an age where great strides are being made to improve equality and diversity in the workplace (although more work is still to be done). For some reason though we’ve deemed ageism as acceptable. In the same way, sexual orientation, race or gender shouldn’t be used to box anyone in, we’d do well to remove age-based generational judgements from our workplace attitudes. 

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