Are the Working Generations Really That Different After All?
We read a lot about the fact that we have four — and will soon have five — generations working alongside each other in the workplace. Next year or perhaps the year after — depending on where your generational boundaries lie — the first batch of fresh-faced, digitally-enabled, generation-Z specimens will join the corporate rat race, standing alongside generation Y, generation X, early boomers and late boomers in the monthly meetings.
What does all this mean? Well, you may imagine some tension will occur when five different generations with supposedly unique outlooks start to collaborate. This may very well be the case: a study from Entrepreneur found that a third of workers waste 12 percent of their working week involved in some form of intergenerational conflict.
This study also found that a key reason for conflict was not differences in generational outlook, but the proliferation of age-related stereotypes within all categories, which have become self-fulfilling prophecies. It seems that workers are not getting past the stereotypes, choosing instead to languish in a state of ignorance. Ignorance and stereotyping seem to be the key drivers of intergenerational conflict — not the actual age differences themselves.
A report from CBRE questions the extent to which these intergenerational differences actually exist at all. For example, one prevailing stereotype about millennials is that they are highly collaborative and social. The report reveals this to be true, showing that millennials spend 38 percent of their time collaborating with others. But this isn’t unique to millennials: the research found that generation X and baby boomers are just as collaborative, and in some respects they were shown to be a little more collaborative. Actually, the study found there to be very little difference between generations in the way that they like to spend their time and collaborate. It seems that, with regard to ways of working, generations have the same preferences in terms of variety, choice, access, and transparency.
We might expect some generational differences to come about when we look at preferences for compensation and benefits, and this study from Barclays confirms this to be the case. The study found that baby boomers value pension (71 percent), health care (48 percent), and career development opportunities (57 percent) , while gen X values pensions (71 percent) and flexible work (69 percent), and generation Y values career and personal development most (64 percent). What struck me here was that, while there are differences between generations, there are similarities as well. I mean, who’d have thought that both baby boomers and millennials would put career development at/near the top of the list of personal priorities? Boomers and gen X both prioritize pension, too.
What all this says to me is that many of the differences between generations are superficial, and the generations are, in fact, overwhelmingly similar in terms of workplace preferences.
What does this mean for HR and hiring policy-makers? It appears that it would be overkill to try and tailor individual strategies to attract and engage each generation, as there would be too much overlap and many of the documents would look the same as a result. There is also little room for narrow HR engagement strategies, as most modern organizations have a broad generational array of talent.
It seems that, given the similarities between generations, it’s perfectly practicable to devise broad, flexible, and adaptable policies that all generations will receive well. This is the strategy that I believe forward-thinking organization should adopt.