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Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, So Focus on the Individual

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, So Focus on the Individual

Sarah Steimer

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Despite headlines that say otherwise, researchers argue that there are no major differences between generations in the workplace

If the “OK, boomer” meme demonstrated anything, it’s how quick many are to categorize and stereotype by generation. But of course, any millennial who’s had to scroll through headline after headline of “How Millennials Killed…” knows this.

Generational stereotypes are easy fodder for pop culture jokes and clickbait-y headlines, but they’ve crept into the workplace as well. In 2015, IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute published a white paper titled, “Generational Differences at Work Are Much Ado About Very Little,” which study co-author Sara P. Weiner says was written in part because she became fed up with articles making blanket statements about different generations in the workforce.

“It just sat wrong with me,” says Weiner, who currently serves as principal organizational development science consultant at Glint. “I felt that, as a consultant, my clients were getting sent down the wrong path and were focusing on things that were really not actionable.”

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According to the IBM paper, a meta-analysis of 20 studies found small-to-moderate differences and inconsistent patterns across generations’ work attitudes. IBM also analyzed data from more than 115,000 employees collected over 18 years and found similar results: that differences in work attitudes were small. Only 0% to 2% of work attitude differences were attributable to generation. But Weiner says that the media latched onto what small differences some studies did show, and beat the drum on those figures.

In turn, some companies started using generational stereotypes to inform how they viewed their workforce.

“The problem is that a lot of organizations are using these heuristics, these generational labels to make decisions about selection or how they target certain groups,” says Margaret Beier, a professor in the department of psychological sciences at Rice University. “I’m not sure how valuable those things are going to be because it’s dangerous in some ways. What it’s doing is relying on stereotypes to recruit, select and retain employees, and that can lead you down a slippery slope.”

Assumptions are made that a millennial worker will be drawn to businesses that offer Friday happy hours, or that baby boomer employees are simply no good at using technology. But these lump categorizations don’t always hold true, and it removes the individual’s needs from the equation entirely.

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The Problem with Generational Stereotypes

People are somewhat naturally drawn to using generations to easily categorize others.

“It goes back to this idea of social categorization theory,” says Elora Voyles, assistant professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University. “[It] states that humans naturally group people by their characteristics. It’s easier to think about people as distinct groups, rather than acknowledging that age is a continuum. It’s, for example, easier to say, ‘This person is Gen X,’ rather than just stating their age. When you conclude that they’re Gen X, then it’s easier to assign those stereotypes that you would associate with that category that we’ve, as a culture, developed.”

The stereotypes assigned to these generations don’t always track for each person. For example, someone born in 1982—who would be considered a millennial—likely has more in common with someone born in 1978 and considered a Gen Xer than a fellow millennial born in 1993. The time range we assign to generations tends to be relatively arbitrary.

“When you target any kind of effort on the basis of a stereotype, you’re really going to miss the mark with a lot of people because there’s just a ton of variability within each of these generational groupings,” Beier says. A lot of organizations use these heuristics or generational labels to make decisions about selection or how they target certain groups, but Beier is skeptical about the value of such categorization. Like other stereotypes—such as those based on gender, race or religion—it may not only miss the mark, it could be offensive. “It’s dangerous in some ways,” she says. “It can be as detrimental for different age groups as it can be for any other kind of group to rely on stereotypes to target individuals.”

Voyles outlines three variations on stereotypes and how they can be detrimental in the workforce. First are meta-stereotypes, or the ways in which people internalize how others have stereotyped them. “I found in my own research that when people are faced with certain negative stereotypes [about themselves], they are less likely to step up to challenges related to that stereotype.” For instance, if millennials internalize the stereotype that they’re narcissistic, they may not be as forthright in team projects.

Similar to meta-stereotypes, there’s also the issue of stereotype threat—the idea that when you’re aware of a negative stereotype regarding your group, it’ll negatively affect your performance. “For older workers, this has been shown in research, for example, with memory,” Voyles explains. “It’s been shown with training and technology that when they’re aware, or when they’ve been reminded of negative stereotypes regarding their memory abilities or training abilities, it can produce a decrease in their performance.”

Lastly, there’s evidence that even positive stereotypes related to age—which are stereotypes nonetheless—can have negative effects on workers. In a way, it’s a combination of both meta-stereotypes and stereotype threat. In her own research, Voyles found that people can feel threatened by not living up to a positive stereotype that’s ascribed to their group. For example, there’s an assumption that older workers are wiser and can be looked up to for guidance; however, an older worker who hasn’t been at an organization for long or who recently changed careers can feel threatened by this stereotype and unable to live up to the assumption.

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Focus on the Individual

People want to be seen as multidimensional, as the sum of the unique puzzle pieces that makes them who they are as a person. Recognizing them as such—not just as their generation—gives workers due credit.

Just as well-rounded individuals make for strong employees, a strong team should have workers of varying backgrounds. In this way, it’s beneficial not to target specific generations to fill the ranks. Beier says research suggests that age-diverse teams benefit from the expertise of some of the older members and the energy or achievement focus of some of the younger members. Even then, don’t make too much of the differing generations in an organization or team. “When we focus on generational stereotypes, this can increase the likelihood of team fault lines appearing based on age,” Voyles says.

Much as marketers have learned the value of personalization over segmentation, the best course of action is to avoid the natural temptation to assign characteristics to demographics and instead focus on the individual. In fact, there is one driver that most workers agree on: a sense of purpose.

“What they really want is work that provides them with a sense of meaning,” Beier says. “And they want autonomy to be able to engage and work when they want to do it.”

There are five generations participating in the workforce right now, from the silent generation to Gen Z. But that’s only a fraction of the variation in a single company, and not every person from a generation will exhibit the stereotypes ascribed to their age group. As Beier jokes: “You’ll find just as many people in my generation who use their cell phone way too much as you will in the millennial generation.”

Illustrations by Bill Murphy.

Sarah Steimer is managing editor of Marketing News. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.