Blog Post

Why You Shouldn’t Rely on Generational Labels in the Workplace

Leigh Limpic

Strategic Engagement Consultant at Cornerstone OnDemand

It has become the norm to identify and categorize people along generational lines. Jessica Kriegel, in her book Unfairly Labeled, states that we create generational stereotypes because we seek to find certainty in an uncertain world and labels can be a shortcut to understanding. We often go beyond the idea of trends or patterns and begin to identify generational differences almost as laws of the universe. But as Kriegel (a Millennial) points out, it can be misleading when "the only thing 80 million people have in common is an age bracket that is 20 years long."

My father-in-law Grampa Limpic, for example, is 95 years old. As a child, he grew up on a farm in the Midwest where telephones, radios and indoor plumbing were a luxury. He lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II. He was married to his high school sweetheart for 72 years. Grampa is part of the Greatest Generation. When we think of someone of his generation, we generally have a positive view. We also might have some less flattering images. But Grampa defies the norm. He still lives in the family home and recently renewed his driver’s license for another five years. He regularly skypes with family members and pays his caregivers using Google Wallet. Grampa has some of the traits that we would define as being a part of his generation, but in many ways he is an anomaly. Then again, aren’t we all?

When we categorize people along their generational lines, we often fail to recognize the incredible breadth of socio-economic and cultural differences within the demographic of each generation.

Generational Labels Are Often Not Accurate

Generational labeling primarily started as advertisers sought to reach specific consumer demographics. However, what may be an effective approach for mass marketing is not necessarily effective from a societal or organizational perspective. For one, most of the generational labels and stereotypes are not based on any empirical research but rather are perpetuated by popular media. The reality doesn’t necessarily align with the hype. In 2014, IBM conducted the Institute for Business Values Millennial Survey and the findings revealed that generations are really much more similar than different in many ways. For example, Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers all responded very similarly: they want to make a positive impact on their organization, they see the importance of solving social and environmental challenges and they value working with a diverse group of people.

In 2016 SHRM conducted a study called, "Millennials: Misunderstood in the Workplace?" The study evaluated the level of job satisfaction across generations. Of those surveyed, 86 percent of Millennials stated that they were satisfied with their jobs this year compared to 88 percent of Generation X and 90 percent of Baby Boomers. The study also found that there was a great deal of similarity between Millennials and Baby Boomers in the importance that they place on job training (95 percent for Millennials and 88 percent for Baby Boomers), Career Advancement (89 percent and 73 percent respectively) and Career Development (88 percent and 76 percent).

Generally, most employees seek respect and feedback from others and want to have work that is meaningful and impacts the organization. We want to develop and grow in the ways that are relevant to us. As a global society, we all are affected by innovation and technology, social change and cultural shifts. What we often label as generational differences may, in reality, be differences based more on life stage or experience rather than our birth year.

The next time you are tempted to categorize or vilify your co-workers over generational lines, ask yourself if you were discussing issues of race, economic status, culture or gender, would you still consider the discussion appropriate? The better approach is to genuinely listen to others, learn from everyone around you and treat people as the individuals that they are. Generational differences (as with any other difference in the workplace) can be a source of innovation, collaboration and strength. As fellow humans, there are many things that that can be a source of connection. Imagine the benefits to each of us if we started our focus on what we share together.

Photo: Creative Commons

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