Generational Differences in the Workplace: Fact or Fiction?

Posted on October 06, 2005
Posted By: Robert Cenek
The values of the average worker have changed significantly since the 1956 publication of William Whyte's "Organization Man." Unlike the 'organization man or woman,' the typical worker today is not willing to be subservient to the corporation in exchange for security and a sense of belongingness. Employees "work to live," and not "live to work." Other than the “young, urban professional movement” in the 80’s, this trend has been on a pretty predictable and steady trajectory for years. Discussing generational differences is prime cocktail party talk. There is both a certain amount of mystery, as well as a certain amount of sense making by being able to attribute, explain and categorize patterns of behavior in the workplace. Astute pop psychology merchants understand that, and a few have been very creative at reducing complex demographical and societal characteristics into simple nostrums and four quadrant boxes, and have packaged those to provide a nice steady income stream.

Dr. Morris Massey may have popularized the discussion of generational differences with his highly entertaining and at times comical videotapes that focused on the differences in values among workers. Dr. Massey, in a sometimes very blunt fashion, assigned core personal values to different age cohorts in the workforce. Many of his statements really resonated with training audiences, and his success produced a cottage industry of consultants, each claiming to have the latest and most accurate twist on generational differences in the workplace. Not all of the work done by some of these experts has necessarily been bad. Some of their work has helped interpersonally challenged leaders gain a better grip on the intricacies of workplace behavior. No one can deny that there are some differences among different age groups. However, strong evidence is surfacing that suggests that there are as many similarities as there are differences among workers, Jennifer Deal, who is affiliated with the highly esteemed leadership think tank, the Center for Creative Leadership, has undertaken some of the more compelling and insightful research. She surveyed approximately 3,400 workers according to their key values, interests and desires. Her survey respondents included solid samples from the baby boomers (early boomers born between 1946 and 1954 and late boomers born between 1955 and 1963) and Generation Xers born after 1964. There were fewer however in the pre-1945 age group, named by the researchers the "silent generation", and fewer still in the late Generation X group born between 1977 and 1982.

Dr. Deal's findings suggest that some of the conventional wisdom about generational differences is more myth than reality. Some of her key findings included:

  • Older and younger workers have many similar values, including valuing family, integrity, love and self-respect. She found that fame, affluence, authority, competition and advancement were least likely to rank in the top five, regardless of age;
  • Younger workers today change jobs no more frequently than they did 20 years ago;
  • There are no age-related differences in the number of hours worked by employees;
  • Older people were just as keen to undergo further training and to use computers as the youngest workers; and
  • Older and younger workers do not find it difficult to work together.
While there were many apparent similarities between generations, she admits to finding a few differences as well. For example, when asked if they saw themselves staying with their employer for more than three years, less than 40 per cent of the late Xers said yes, compared with almost 70 per cent of the early boomers – the most long-term-looking group in the sample. Fewer of the older generation were thinking this way presumably because some were looking at retirement in the short term. Comments made when asked what they wanted from employers often differed in nuance between adjoining generations but markedly between the oldest and the youngest. The silent generation, for example, tended to make comments along the following theme: “Give me interesting work to do, recognize my efforts and pay me fairly.” The late Xers, on the other hand, indicated a strong desire for advancement, with flexibility around work schedules, mentoring and merit pay for good work rather than extra pay for seniority.

Dr. Jennifer Deal’s research findings have been supported to some extent by similar work from Sirota Consulting, a global survey research firm. The firm recently published a book entitled “The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Employees Want They Want.” The volume details the results of more than 30 years of survey research by this well-known firm – and debunks many prevailing myths about today’s workplace. One key theme in the book is that the vast majority of workers, regardless of their generational roots, want to be proud of the work that they do and their organization. Further, they yearn to be treated fairly, and value harmonious relationships with co-workers.

All ages in the workforce have similar needs that they yearn to satisfy. Broad social mores certainly change over time, but certain human drives clearly remain constant through the ages, including the need to be loved, appreciated, and respected. While leadership is much more than just doing ‘doing what comes naturally,” it seems as if we have a tendency to make the whole subject much more enigmatic and complicated than it needs to be.

Authored By:
Robert Cenek, founder of the Cenek Company, has been building strong leaders and organizations since 1979. Robert has worked in such premier Fortune 500 companies as General Mills and Bristol-Myers. At General Mills, where he was a member of team that led the nationally recognized development of high performance work systems in the company’s manufacturing facilities. At Bristol-Myers, he created the management development function for the corporate staff, and was

Other Posts by: Robert Cenek

Boomers to Delay Retirement - February 17, 2005
Getting Cozy with the Customer - September 16, 2004

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