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  • Writer's pictureKathy Andrews

Three Issues with Generational Thinking in the Workplace

How does this sound to you:

You’ve got a great job title in a job where you’re never bored, an excellent paycheck with an ideal benefits package. You’re able to work flexibly, either from home or hours that you decide, to maintain a great work-life balance.

Even better:

Your employer offers great personal and professional development, provide the opportunity to volunteer in your community while maintaining an ethical stance with their business practices.

Doesn’t that sound great? You sound like a millennial, according to many studies*.

Every day, a new article is published about generational differences in the workplace.

Articles lamenting the laziness and disloyalty of Millennials (generation Y) or panicking over the Baby Boomers retiring in mass numbers with not enough senior workers to take over their work.

How is it possible to maintain harmony in your workplace whenever there are now four generations in the workplace?

The truth is...

You shouldn’t think about the generational labels at all.

Here are three reasons that thinking of people in term of generations is the wrong strategy to take.

1. You’re letting confirmation bias do all of your work for you.

There was a study done in 2013* attempting to replicate a previous study’s** findings that Gen Y are more narcissistic than previous generations.

However, whenever the study was expanded to include a more complete view of the complete demographic of Gen Y, the previous study’s findings could not be replicated.

They instead found that rates of narcissism remained stable throughout all generations when accounting for the whole population of the generation, not select members (usually university undergrads).

Normally, younger people are more narcissistic and self-involved, with rates decreasing over time. On the other hand, they found that people who already think of Gen Y as more narcissistic knew a narcissistic person in Gen Y and assumed all of Gen Y must be self-obsessed.

Why is this an issue?

Even I have had a change of heart on this topic after speaking with others and doing some research of my own. I’ve been letting confirmation bias do all of the work for me whenever it comes to thinking about other generations.

I’m not alone in this, it’s been around for a long time when it comes to generational thinking. But what’s important is re-examining beliefs and being able to admit when you’ve had your mind changed.

2. People at different life and career stages want different things. And that’s okay!

The issue that a lot of companies are facing is that they are trying to communicate with different generations instead of thinking of terms of a person’s current stage of life.

For example:

Two men, both with the exact same background, except Man A is married with 2 small children, and Man B is single with no children. They are in different stages of life, even though they’re apart of the same generation. Man A may have more in common with someone two decades his senior, who also has 2 small children.

Companies should look to communicate with populations of workers with these sorts of things in common rather than assuming someone born in 1992 will communicate differently or want something different than someone born in 1972.

3. There’s just not enough research to support generational differences at work- but plenty of the opposite.

From studies showing that Gen X and Baby Boomers didn’t need special workplace consideration* to studies showing that the current “big three” generations at work (Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y) all have negligible differences that are simply explained by the lower experience of Gen Y**.

The numbers simply don’t add up – and it doesn’t make sense for your business to invest in addressing so-called “generational differences”.

If you disagree, keep point number one in mind and remember that everyone grows and changes both as they age and as they gain experience and confidence in their work.

Most of the research done on younger generations was conducted whenever they were fresh out of university or high school***.

So, what’s a manager to do?

First, ask your employees what they want in terms of remaining with your company instead of making assumptions based on any generational label they may hold.

Second, keep in mind your own biases that you may hold.

And third, if there are issues within your organization, sometimes having an outside eye look over any issues can be helpful.

At Cinga Leadership, we can provide consultation on a myriad of different issues that your organization may be facing, from leadership development to help your leaders perform to the best of their ability, to organizational development to provide guidance on where your organization is performing well and where it could use strengthening.


*Deloitte. (2016). The 2016 Deloitte millennial survey.

Gallup. (2016, May 12). Millennials: The Job-Hopping Generation.

HRPA of Canada. (2016). HR & millennials: Insights into your new human capital.

KPMG. (2017). Meet the millennials.

PricewaterhouseCoopers. (2011). Millennials at work: Reshaping the workplace.

1*Arnett, J. J. (2013). The evidence for generation we and against generation me. Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood, 1(1), 5-10.

1**Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Freeman, E. C. (2012). Generational differences in young adults' life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966–2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 1045-1062.

3*Yang, S., & Guy, M. E. (2006). Genxers versus boomers: Work motivators and management implications. Public Performance & Management Review, 29(3), 267-284.

3**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), 375-394.

Kowske, B. J., Rasch, R., & Wiley, J. (2010). Millennials’ (lack of) attitude problem: An empirical examination of generational effects on work attitudes. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(2), 265-279.

3***Ng, E. S., Schweitzer, L., & Lyons, S. T. (2010). New generation, great expectations: A field study of the millennial generation. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(2), 281-292.

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