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August 7, 2019

Millennials and boomers are vastly different at work, right? (Wrong.)

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Sep. 22, 2022.

    While many managers believe the various generations in today's workforce have very different workplace values, those beliefs are largely mistaken—and they're creating artificial divides that undermine workplace collaboration, Eden King and colleagues write for Harvard Business Review

    King is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University. Her colleagues include Lisa Finkelstein, a professor at Northern Illinois University; Courtney Thomas, a doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University; and Abby Corrington, a graduate student at Rice University.

    About that 'generational divide'...

    According to the Society for Human Resource Management, members of five generations are currently in the workforce, spanning from the Silent Generation to Generation Z.

    As employees of very different ages bump elbows in the office, employers are making assumptions about how each group of workers will behave. King and colleagues list some common assumptions: "Baby boomers don't text, right? And you need to attract those tech-y millennials with promises of flexible work schedules, but their older counterparts all want a traditional workday, correct?"

    These assumptions, King and colleagues note, are "actually wrong." In fact, while there's evidence that some differences do exist between generational preferences, those gaps are generally "quite small."

    One analysis of 20 studies with nearly 20,000 participants, for instance, found that, while individual workers certainly experienced changes in their "needs, interests, preferences, and strengths over the course of their careers, sweeping group differences depending on age or generation alone don't seem to be supported," King and her colleagues write.

    How each generation of workers stereotypes the others (and themselves)

    In fact, the belief that significant generational differences exist might have more of an impact on organizations than the actual generational differences, King and her colleagues write. 

    "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 authors write.

    To illustrate significance of age-related stereotypes, King and colleagues cite a survey in which researchers asked 247 workers in different age groups what qualities people in a different age group might have, as well as what qualities others would assume belong to their age own group.

    Overall, the researchers found that neither the stereotypes nor the "meta-stereotypes"—that is, what people within a group thought others think of their group—were accurate.

    "People's stereotypes of older workers were largely positive and included words like 'responsible,' 'hard-working,' and 'mature,'" according to King and colleagues. "Yet older workers themselves worried that others might see them as 'boring,' 'stubborn,' and 'grumpy.'"

    Stereotypes of younger workers were overall less positive, ranging from "enthusiastic" to "inexperienced," King and colleagues. "Even so, younger workers believed that others would see them in a more negative manner than they actually did," King and colleagues write.

    How generational stereotypes can harm organizations

    These stereotypes can greatly impact workplace interactions, according to King and colleagues.

    In one study, King and her fellow researchers instructed undergraduate students to train people on a computer task through a chat interface. The researchers varied whether the trainee—who was actually a fellow undergraduate—"appeared to be old (approximately 53) or young (approximately 23) using photographs and voice-modifying software," King and her colleagues write.

    The experiment revealed that age stereotypes affected the quality of training people received. "When trainers believed that they were teaching an older person how to do the computer task, they had lower expectations and provided worse training than when they believed they were teaching a young person," according to the researchers. "The potential consequences of these findings are alarming, as inferior training can result in reduced learning and ultimately interfere with employees' job performance."

    3 keys to banishing the stereotypes

    So how can organizations break through these stereotypes and meta-stereotypes?

    "[O]penly talking about these stereotypes and meta-stereotypes can be a great first step," King and her colleagues write. Practices such as role reversal exercises and story-sharing among an age-diverse group of employees can help workers recognize stereotypes and meta-stereotypes, according to the researchers.  

    Another effective strategy is emphasizing the group's shared goals, King and colleagues write. "By doing so, both older and younger people can see themselves as part of the same team working toward the same outcome," according to King and her colleagues.

    Lastly, managers should recognize that employees' "priorities, demands, experiences, and physical capacities," change over time, but that "not every employee within the same age group will have the same experiences at the same exact time," King and colleagues write. "[E]ngaging in an ongoing and open dialogue with employees to discuss shifting needs can help managers keep their hard-working and experienced employees engaged, happy, and productively collaborating with others for the long haul" (King et al., Harvard Business Review, 8/1).

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