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The Time Has Come to Drop the Generations Talking

by Silvia Della Russo

How often has it occurred to you to read in magazines and blogs about multiple generations at work? And how often did these accounts include sketched descriptions of each of these groups? I suspect many of us incur similar reports nearly on a daily basis, that widespread is the generations talking. And the tone of such portrayals is likely to be of the type: “Millennials are self-entitled and narcissistic”, “Generation X is individualistic and only motivated by money”, “Baby boomers are career-focused and competitive”.

If your immediate reaction to these examples was to shake your head in sign of denial and get off this page, no surprise: nobody, regardless of their generation, likes to be labeled in negative terms. Probably, more flattering descriptions would be better received, and yet they would be just as simplistic as the former ones. This is, after all, what these labels and sketchy descriptions are for: easy categorization and hyper-simplification of the reality we live in and the people we interact with.

Wait, but where did I hear about this before? Oh, right, it was at University in my class on social psychology where the same definition was given for stereotypes: forms of categorization that serve to simplify complex information. This means that the more we are exposed to generalizations and labeling, the less we are confronted with the complexity of reality and the difficult task of managing the diverse workforce we have in organizations.

Well, for all those who are tired of it…you’re not alone! And, actually, you have evidence on your side showing that generations are an appealing idea, but not much rooted in the data. This evidence simply needs to be discussed, get the right space and travel as far and fast as all the stereotypes!

A group of researchers led by David Costanza, Professor at the George Washington University published a number of critical pieces on the concept of generations, the latest of which points to an important conclusion: previous studies that found (or did not find) differences among generational groups are all influenced by the specific method used. This implies that we cannot trust that evidence which is, by the way, inconclusive and difficult to replicate.

What Costanza and his colleagues did was to use two large samples from archival data to test for differences in job satisfaction among generations using the different methods previous researchers had used, with the specific purpose of comparing them. The bewildering finding was that each method yielded different results!

The tricky aspect of generations is that they cannot be easily separated from age and the socio-economical and historical period, simultaneously. Generational characteristics should be there even when people get older – and if we do not have data about the Millennials yet, for Generation X and Baby Boomers the data show that individuals belonging to these groups have not stayed the same in their twenties, thirties, forties, and so on.

On the other hand, the historical and social events that we experience impact our lives in a significant manner and not just when they occur in our developmental years. Again, were this true, individuals belonging to any one generational group would stay unchanged across time, and this is not the case – ultimately because the business and organizational world is changing and that affects all of us, for the good or the bad.

Consequently, we are left with more than a doubt of whether any “generational” effect is, in fact, an age effect (who hasn’t been more self-focused in their twenties, when starting to build one’s career?) and/or a period effect (who could disregard the changing world of work or the big financial crisis we just passed through?).

It seems to be high time to drop the generations talking and engage in deeper reflections on how to manage a workforce that is, objectively, more diverse – age-wise and on other characteristics too – and that, precisely because of this, requires an HR and managerial culture of respect for the workers as individuals rather than categories or generational groups.

Author: Silvia Dello Russo | Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management at ISCTE-IUL

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