When it comes to discussions on the various challenges leaders need to address in today’s fast-changing global economy, there’s one topic that merits a proper assessment as to whether or not it’s really an issue for today’s organizations. And that is the issue of how to effectively manage a multi-generational workforce.
In some ways it’s only natural that we see an increase in discussions on potential challenges for organizations in operating under a multi-generational workforce. With the Boomer generation staying in the workforce longer due to declining retirement savings and increasing cost-of-living expenses, organizations are not only having to deal with three different generations of employees working together, but also the impact of a slowdown in the rate of upward career movement for younger workers.
The problem, though, with these discussions of managing a multi-generational workforce is when the focus shifts to trying to articulate differences in values, motivations, and attitudes based purely on generational cohorts, especially when it comes to trying to differentiate the Millennial generation from previous ones.
One of the key faults found in all these discussions on the differences between Millennials and the other generational cohorts is that they often differentiate generational values with respect to technological differences – in particular, differences in usage – as opposed to sociological ones. Specifically, how the focus tends to be on how Millennials are the first generation to grow up in a ‘high-tech’, mobile world.
We have to remember that technology is merely a tool that helps us to understand and relate to others and our surroundings; it doesn’t in and of itself define our values. For example, when we went from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the values in these ancient cultures didn’t change. Rather, what changed was how they were able to do things more effectively. The values that drove why they did what they did, or which informed them of what mattered to them, though, remained the same.
Of course, there are those who argue that thanks to social media and mobile technology, the Millennial generation is more at ease with transparency and open sharing than their previous generations. But again, this overlooks the key fact that demographic studies have shown that there’s only a 10% difference in the number of Millennial (89%) vs Gen-X (78%) internet users who are active on social media; Boomers are also well-represented as 60% of internet users from their generation are also regular social media users (1).
In other words, it’s not just the Millennials that are driving or are comfortable with the transparent and open nature of social media – this is a sociological phenomenon that exists in all generations.
Another argument that’s often used to fuel discussions on generational differences is how the Millennials represent the largest generation to enter the workforce since the Boomer generation and consequently, there is a requirement for organizational change to reflect the way this generation wants to work.
Here again, we see misplaced assumptions being used over facts – after all, we only need to look at the current state of politics in many countries to see evidence that having large numbers demanding change is not the same as seeing actual change being put into action. Besides, this argument overlooks the fundamental fact that organizations since the time of Ancient Egypt have never been democratically run for obvious reasons, let alone that organizational vision and values instead of workplace demographics should inform how an organization functions.
Perhaps most critically, the key fault with so many of these business and leadership articles on generational differences is that there’s no evidence-based, empirical studies to back up their assertions.
To that end, let’s take a look at what researchers have found in their work looking at the different attitudes, perceptions and values between the different generations and its real impact on today’s workplaces. This way, we can finally move beyond anecdotal and personal viewpoints to empirical, hard facts over whether this really is an issue leaders need to be addressing to ensure their organization’s long-term success and growth.
When it comes to studying generational differences, researchers have examined this sociological phenomenon under one of the following four frameworks:
- The life course theory, which looks at how historical events and social attitudes/mores shape the various demographic groups.
- The theory of cohorts, which uses the scarcity and socialization hypotheses which respectively state that during times of hardship, people attach great value to material wealth and status, but when experiencing good times, people focus more on self-actualization and looking out for the greater good.
- The psychological contract theory which looks at differences in employee behaviour and the relationship they have to their organization according to age and cohort.
- Examining the links between values and behaviours and the impact this has on how the different generations approach work.
Under each of these research models, researchers weren’t able to find any basis for the often-discussed and cited generational differences in behaviours and attitudes, and that the sociological differences we do see in the workplace are actually dependent on other factors. (2), (3), (4), (5), (6)
Take, for example, the point that’s often made of how Millennials are more likely to leave their job if they don’t feel a sense of connection or purpose as compared to workers from the Gen-X and Boomer generations. Several studies have clearly shown that employees’ needs at the start of their career are different from those at the mid-point, as they are different from employees who are at the end point of their career (3), (7), something I’m sure our own personal experiences can attest.
Indeed, the almost nomadic-like mobility that is often ascribed to Millennials has also been refuted to relate less to a generational value/behavioural construct as it is simply reflective of the attitude seen in every generation at the start of their careers. In other words, this behaviour correlates more to our age and what stage we are in our careers than it does to which generation we belong to. (3), (7)
Studies have also addressed the persisting notion that the Millennial generation operates from a different set of values from previous generations, requiring a fundamental shift not only in how organizations operate, but in the kind of work they provide to employees. A study by Wils et al showed conclusively that employees from different generations do in fact share the same work values. (8)
In other words, Millennials are not the only ones who want to do meaningful work, feel a sense of purpose and connection in what they do, and know that they have the opportunity to grow and thrive as members of their organization.
In this light, perhaps the most important point to take from all these studies is that by attempting to view employees in a black-white spectrum – of which generation they belong to – in order to understand how to engage, motivate, and connect with them, leaders end up applying a homogenized approach to their interactions.
The end result is rather than coming to a better understanding of what truly matters to your employees, we end up assuming we know what they want based solely on their demographic group, which will no doubt perpetuate the continuing low levels of engagement we see in today’s workplaces.
There’s no question that leaders and their organizations face a great number of challenges in today’s fast-paced and culturally diverse global economy, particularly as we obtain greater tools and data to help us understand the increasing complexity in today’s business environment. That’s why it’s important that we not distract ourselves and expend what limited resources we have on non-issues like generational differences.
Instead, we need to recognize that all employees are driven to do work that creates a sense of purpose and meaning. That they see a connection between what they do and what matters to their organization and to those they serve. And that they have opportunities to increase their autonomy and competencies by getting better and consistent feedback from those in charge, all while operating within an increasingly connected, wired world.
These are not just the realities, motivations, and desires of the Millennials, but are a constant of the human condition that can be seen throughout our collective history on this planet. For today’s organizations to succeed and thrive in the years ahead, we need to exemplify this – both through our actions and words – not just to one subset in our organization, but to everyone we serve through our leadership.
(1) Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project Spring Tracking Survey 2013. Available online at: http://pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2013/PIP_Social_networking_sites_update_PDF.pdf
(2) Costanza D.P., Badger J.M., Fraser R.L, Severt J.B & Gade P.A. (2012). “Generational differences in work-related attitudes: A meta-analysis”, Journal of Business and Psychology, 27(4), p. 375-394.
(3) Finegold D., Mohrman S. & Spreitzer G.M. (2002). “Age effects on the Predictors of Technical workers’ Commitment and Willingness to Turnover”, Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23(5), p. 655-674.
(4) Conger J.A. (2000). “How ‘Gen X’ Managers Manage”, in Osland J.S., Kolb D.A. & Rubin I.M. (eds) The Organizational Behavior Reader. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
(5) Wong M., Gardiner E., Lang,W. & Coulon, L. (2008). “Generational differences in personality and motivation: Do they exist and what are the implications for the workplace?”, Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(8), p. 878–890.
(6) Saba T. (2009). “Les différences intergénérationnelles au travail: faire la part des choses”, Gestion, 34(3), p. 25-37.
(7) Saba T. & Dolan S.L. (2013), La Gestion des ressources humaines, tendances, enjeux et pratiques actuelles, 5e édition, Montréal : ERPI-Pearson Education, à paraître.
(8) Wils T., Saba T., Waxin M.F & Labelle C. (2011). “Intergenerational and Intercultural Differences in Work Values in Quebec and the United Arab Emirates”, Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations, 66(3), p. 445-469.