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Shocking research: Generational stereotypes don’t make sense on the job

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

avoid generational stereotypesWe’ve written about this a lot both here on the blog and over at The Jury Expert. So it isn’t news to us, but evidently it continues to surprise experts in other fields. Business journals are still urging differing management strategies for members of different generations in the workplace. But, as in other research, today’s authors find their data does not support this popular recommendation. So we offer this research review in the hope that someone will bring it with them to work. Here we go again…

Researchers wanted to test three generational stereotypes in the workplace to see if data would support common assumptions. Specifically, they examined:

Whether Baby Boomers change jobs less often than Gen X or Millennials (“job mobility”);

Whether Baby Boomers comply more with workplace rules than do Gen X or Millennials (“compliance with work rules”), and

Whether Gen X members are either less motivated or lazy, thus less likely to work overtime than either Baby Boomers or Millennials (“willingness to work overtime”).

These are all common stereotypes (i.e., younger employees job hop, they do not comply with rules, and are unwilling to pull their weight if it’s inconvenient) and, stereotypes often exist for a reason. Sometimes it is due to facts. Other times it is due to the holder of the viewpoint being kinda grumpy and annoyed with the subgroup in question. But, other times, stereotypes simply do not accurately describe the nuances, or even the reality of situations.

The researchers used a huge sample of 8,128 people who applied for jobs at two different hospitals located in the southeastern United States. The sample was composed of Baby Boomers (N = 1,641, 20.2%), GenXers (4,972, 61.2%), and Millennials (1,515, 18.6%). On average, Boomers were 48.5 years old, GenXers were 30.8 years old and the Millennials were 21.5 years old (these are tilted toward the younger end in all 3 groups). The group was racially heterogeneous with 301 Native Americans (3.7%), 116 Asian/Pacific Islanders (1.4%), 237 Hispanics (2.9%), 3,955 African-Americans (48.7%) and 3,211 Caucasians (39.5%). A total of 308 (3.8%) did not disclose race. The sample was 83.2% female, 15.8% male and 1% did not disclose their gender. So, although each of these demographic cells is large enough for meaningful interpretation, the profile doesn’t perfectly match the national profile or the workforce. Asian and Hispanic participants are under-represented, African-Americans are over-represented, and it is a much more a female sample than a male sample. But with that said, a study this big allows for skewing like that without sacrificing validity.

As part of their application process, participants were required to complete a questionnaire on their historical workplace behaviors, and researchers used this data to identify their findings.

This research, unlike most prior research on generations at work, focused on historical job behaviors self-reported by the applicants (as opposed to a self-report of individual attitudes and values). While there were differences in the three areas assessed, the differences were small. The authors caution readers to understand that the typical recommendation to apply different management strategies to each separate generation in your workplace is likely not a good use of funds for improving your particular workplace. In other words, this study (of more than 8,000 people) did not support the idea that you should practice different management strategies for employees from different generations–the differences found were just too small statistically.

Here is what the researchers found about the common generalizations held about the various generations in the workplace.

Job mobility: Boomers actually do stay in jobs longer than GenXers and Millennials and it isn’t just that they are older and no longer moving about for their careers. On average, Boomers stayed at a job a bit more than 2 years longer than GenXers, and 4 years longer than Millennials.

Compliance with workplace rules: Older employees do have a slight tendency to adhere more to workplace rules concerning attendance and appearance. They also have less experience with having been fired (or quitting in lieu of being fired). However, this difference was not so much about generation per se as it was about age since individuals in all generations tended to comply more with workplace rules as they get older (and presumably matured).

GenXers will work less overtime: This one is also actually true (and we’ve written about how GenXers are actually living out their values). GenXers were less likely to work overtime than Boomers and Millennials. (There was no difference between the Boomers and Millennials in terms of a history of working overtime hours.)

The researchers emphasize that the differences in the target workplace behaviors don’t warrant different management strategies for different age groups. The differences are simply too small statistically. Instead, the researchers recommend that HR representatives build in flexibility to HR practices and strategies to address the needs of all employees rather than a single generational group. It’s what consultants often say when they are training managers about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Good management is good management. You don’t tailor based on generation. You manage based on the individual and the demands of the job.

It bears repeating: Good management is good management. Stereotypes are not good management, even when well-intentioned.

Becton, J., Walker, H., & Jones-Farmer, A. (2014). Generational differences in workplace behavior Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (3), 175-189 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12208

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