Overgeneralizing the Generations

As workplaces become increasingly age-diverse, psychologists are working to help people of all ages work together.

Conventional wisdom says if you’re a Millennial, born after 1980, you leave work at 5:01, won’t work weekends and prefer texting to face-to-face meetings. In fact, you probably just sent a text to five friends about how lame your 30-something supervisor is. If you’re a Baby Boomer, born between 1946 and 1964, you live to work, can’t text and can’t tolerate change.

But like most stereotypes, those blanket assumptions are often wrong, say psychologists who study age diversity in the workplace. In fact, such generalizations likely drive wedges among co-workers and generate miscommunication.

And in today’s economy, when more retirees are returning to work and employers want to save money by retaining younger workers who are more likely to job hop, preventing age-related clashes is more important than ever, psychologists in the area say. In fact, ignoring intergenerational tensions can be costly and time-consuming: In March, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that age-discrimination cases by employees were at an all-time high, up 29 percent in 2008 from the previous year.

“People are paying attention to age in the workplace in a way that they weren’t before,” says Jackie James, PhD, of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College. “It’s the new buzz topic.”

So far, though, psychologists have only just begun to tease out how people of various ages create conflict at work and how to overcome it, says Lisa Finkelstein, PhD, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University who studies generational differences at work. Though it appears people’s stereotypes about other generations play a role, the exact nature of this role remains unclear, she says. Researchers also don’t know how much people’s perceptions of their age group may lead to miscommunication and discord. “It’s an important time to invest in research on this to see what’s really going on,” Finkelstein says.

Over the hill or on top?

One study by researchers at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College is seeking to better understand the stereotypes about mid-career and older workers—Baby Boomers and Traditionalists born before 1946. Some supervisors and younger workers see older workers as “checking out,” disengaging from their work, not interested in training and development, as rigid and inflexible, says Boston College’s James, the study’s principal investigator.

Yet, according to the as-yet-unpublished study, these workers may be among the most engaged, healthy employees. In the confidential survey of 6,000 employees from a Fortune 500 company, they found that older workers were happier with their work than younger workers and were in as good physical shape as their colleagues. Older employees said they stayed with the company because they found the work meaningful, not because they had few options or were just “marking time until retirement,” says James.

Results also showed that older and younger workers wanted many of the same things: schedule flexibility, opportunities to learn, a supportive supervisor and promotion fairness. This type of finding flies in the face of past research that shows managers tend to pass over older employees when offering professional development opportunities or promotions, probably because they think older staff aren’t interested or the company won’t get its money’s worth, says psychologist Elissa Perry, PhD, of Teachers College at Columbia University.

For example, before 2000, technology firms were notorious for hiring young employees, then spending the money to train them in outdated computer languages like COBOL to manage the Y2K switch, rather than hiring older workers who already had experience with the early computer languages, says Perry, who studies age-discrimination. Such practices, Perry says, can prompt lawsuits and stall the transfer of institutional knowledge from one generation to the next that keeps a company or organization healthy. Not to mention, adds James, frustrate older workers who are eager to compete, especially in today’s rocky economy.

“Policy experts are saying that older workers are going to need to work longer, to save more, that it’s a new era,” says James. “Yet ageism is the biggest obstacle to continuing to work.”

While the cusp years can vary depending on the source, here’s how the generations typically fall:

Traditionalists or Veterans: Born before 1946
Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Generation X: Born between 1965 and 1980
Generation Y or Millennials: Born after 1980

The young and the restful

Older workers aren’t the only ones getting a bad rap around the office, say researchers. Clark University’s Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, who researches emerging adulthood, often sees employers mismanage, misunderstand and even discriminate against Millennials, also known as Gen Y.

“There is such a negative view in our society of this age group, that they are lazy or don’t work hard, and yet there is no evidence of it whatsoever,” says Arnett. “What is true is that they have high expectations of work, that they expect it to be more than just bringing home a paycheck. They are looking for identity-based work, something they enjoy that suits their abilities and interests.”

The problem is, he explains, many profit-driven workplaces aren’t designed to offer that type of self-fulfillment. Plus, some employers and older colleagues find that search for more meaningful work exasperating, he adds, viewing it as having a sense of entitlement. “That’s partly where the stereotypes come from.”

Millennials’ tendencies to assert themselves and question the status quo—suggesting a change to a policy that seems inefficient, for example—can also cause undue trouble, adds Arnett.

“The fact that they are willing to question and offer criticism is something that can make an organization better,” he says. “If you dismiss that, they will look for something else, and probably find it.”

At least one company, the global professional services firm Deloitte, has figured that out. Eighty-five percent of Deloitte’s work force is age 35 or younger, which prompted company leaders to ask them questions on what today’s youth want from their jobs.

Their research found that while there was some truth in some of the Millennial labels—employees did want to job-hop, for example—they found plenty of surprises, notes W. Stanton Smith, a human resources executive at Deloitte, such as that young employees would feel more loyal to Deloitte if they could explore career alternatives within the company. To help make that happen, Deloitte created an internal Web site where employees can confidentially explore and apply for other jobs within the company.

Yet even as companies like Deloitte and psychologists chip away at musty generational stereotypes, many wonder how today’s research will hold up in 30 years when Boomers are scarce, Gen X is retiring and the Millennials are mid-career.

“It’s hard to know how many of the things we are seeing are about generational differences or age differences,” or both, says Columbia’s Perry, who is working to disentangle the two. “Those are potentially very different things.”

Further Reading

  • Arnett, J.J. (2004). Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • The Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College (2009, March). Age & Generations: Understanding Experiences at the Workplace (Research Highlight 6). Boston: Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Matz-Costa, C. & Besen, E.
  • The Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College.(2008, November). The Citisales Study of Older Workers: Employee Engagement, Job Quality, Health, and Well-being (Research Highlight 5). Boston: James, J.B, Swanberg, J.E., & McKechnie, S.P.

By Jamie Chamberlin, American Psychology Association

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