The Generation Myth: Is The Generation Gap All In Our Heads?

Ask anyone and they’ll say that the generation gap is real. They’ve seen it in action. Unfortunately, the science just doesn’t support it. Is the generation gap all in our heads?

Google the generation gap and you will find a plethora of articles purporting to help managers and organisations better manage and motivate the different generations – particularly those troublesome Millennials who are just so darn lazy and entitled!

But the big question is – does the generation gap really exist?

Well, according to research, the answer is no.

Plenty of studies have tried to prove the existence of the generation gap, however the results show that generational differences, if any, are minimal.  A 2012 meta-analysis of 20 studies examining generational differences in work values, found only small and inconsistent differences across the Baby Boomers, Gen X and the Millennials.  The notion that there are significant differences between groups based on age or generation just isn’t supported.

"There is little solid empirical evidence supporting generationally based differences and almost no theory behind why such differences should even exist."

In a 2015 review of the research into generational based differences from Cambridge University Press, the authors conclude that “there is little solid empirical evidence supporting generationally based differences and almost no theory behind why such differences should even exist.” 

A 2014 study looking at generational differences in work attitudes found that there were larger differences in work attitudes within generations than between generations.  The study’s conclusion: “avoid treating employees simply as members of generations, ignoring the fact that other individual differences likely play a more prominent role”.

Generations timeline
Generations timeline

Why do generational stereotypes exist?

Stereotypes are generalisations about people that we use in everyday life to save cognitive energy.  Rather than starting with a blank slate and building a unique picture of each person based on our interactions, we tend to put people into groups based on certain characteristics – age being one of them.  It makes our complicated world easier and faster to process.

The theory on the generations suggests that people born in a certain time period are heavily influenced by the events in their world, and as such, share similar traits, values, attitudes.  For example, the Silent Generation, lived through the Great Depression which made them frugal and instilled the value of hard work.  

By grouping people by generation, we narrow a very broad range of people down to a handful of categories.  Much easier to manage. 

Unfortunately this process of placing people in groups with shared characteristics leads us to make generalisations about people that may be wildly inaccurate.  What happens when someone doesn't fit the mould?

The stereotype snowball

Regardless of how inaccurate these stereotypes may be, once they exist, they become hard to shake.  We look for evidence to confirm these stereotypes and ignore evidence to the contrary. 

Research has shown that people more likely to notice and store information about a group or person that is consistent with a stereotype and less likely to notice when they are not. 

For example, a common stereotype is that older generations are terrible with technology.  But is this really true?  Sure, we can find examples to support it, but we can also find examples to disprove it.  According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1 in 3 information technology and communications workers are 45 years or older.  Younger generations might take notice of an older coworker who is less technologically literate than them, but do they notice the technology experts working in their business that challenge that stereotype?

Another common stereotype is that younger generations are glued to their smart phones.  Older generations may be more acutely aware of younger coworkers checking their phone, but do they notice when older coworkers engage in the same behaviour?  A study by Deloitte found that that 84% of working adults use their personal phones during workhours and check their phones an average of 52 times per day.  Millennials are not the only ones glued to their smart phones.

Generational stereotypes are also somewhat unique in the fact that unlike other stereotypes, which are actively challenged and discouraged, generational stereotypes are reinforced.  We train people in this stuff.  What if tomorrow we decided to start training people how to manage people with blonde hair?  Or to manage based on people’s height?  How would you feel about that? 

The dangers of generational stereotypes in the workplace

The challenge with generational stereotypes, like all stereotypes, is that while they may be accurate in some cases, often they are just plain wrong. This can have serious implications on how we treat and manage others, as well as organisational policies we design to cater for these stereotypes.

Managing and working with others

Let's consider this piece of wisdom from a 1943 edition of Mass Transportation (US) magazine on how to recruit and manage women (…don’t shoot the messenger):

If you can get them, pick young married women . . . they usually have more of a sense of responsibility than do their unmarried sisters, they’re less likely to be flirtatious; as a rule, they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it. General experience indicates that “husky” girls—those who are just a little on the heavy side—are likely to be more even-tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters. Be tactful in issuing instructions or in making criticisms. Women are often sensitive; they can’t shrug off harsh words the way that men do. Never ridicule a woman—it breaks her spirit and cuts her efficiency. (Sanders, 1943, p. 233).

While you ponder how something that was ever published - imagine the impact ideas like that had on the way women were treated by managers and coworkers?  

Yes, granted, that’s an extreme example of stereotyping, but are our current generational stereotypes any better?

Earlier I used the stereotype of older people being bad with technology as an example.  Seems harmless enough, right?  Well, studies have shown that this has a serious impact on how older workers are treated.

In a study examining the effect of generational stereotypes on the quality of training, researchers found that when trainers believed they were training an older person how to complete a computer task, they provided worse training than when they believed they were teaching an older person. The stereotype that older people are less able to learn new skills – especially technology related skills – meant that older people received lower quality training, which can reduce learning and affect their job performance.

Organisational policies and practices

Generational stereotypes have also found their way into organisational policies and practices, particularly in how to reward, motivate and engage members of the different generations.

Take, for example, a reward program structured around generational differences. Based on “proven strategies” for motivating Millennials, you might implement a tech savvy, gamified, reward program that offers member only discounts on things the opportunity to give back to their communities. Do all Millennials really want that stuff?

Besides the fact that there is minimal evidence to support this approach, implementing policies based on vague stereotypes risks alienating that people that just don't fit that mould.  Remember, there is more difference within generations than between generations.  How many of your Millenials are actually typical Millennials?

Researchers argue that rather than trying to design policies and practices around generational differences, organisations should focus on more flexible practices and strategies that better address the individual needs of all employees regardless of their generation.

The wrap up

We all come from different backgrounds, we have different family situations, personalities, interests and abilities.  To assume we are all the same (and remain the same) because we were born within the same 15-year timespan is just silliness.  Its about time we stopped perpetuating the generation myth  - it's doing more harm than good.



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