posted 5 Jun 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 9
Does Generational Difference Matter?
While other articles in this issue emphasise the social differences in a multi-generational workplace, a talent management expert discusses research that dispels some myths.
By Steve Roesler
Humans are fascinating creatures.
A number of firms specialise in educating corporations about the uniqueness of the four generations now in the workplace. This is intellectually interesting and especially helpful to managers who may not be tuned in to some of the nuances of interpersonal life.
There are some obvious differences across age groups. The question is: do they make a difference?
Generations not at war
Dr Jennifer Deal at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) surveyed 3,400 workers, looking for their interests, wishes and values. Respondents were skewed a bit more heavily towards the Boomer/Gen X era, with fewer participants from the Traditional/Silent generation of pre-1945 and the later Gen X period.
Deal says you can “work with – or manage – people from all generations effectively without selling your soul on eBay or pulling your hair out on a daily basis. Look past the stereotypes and learn 10 truths about generational conflicts at work, gleaned from a seven-year CCL study.”
Here is a list of Dr Deal’s 10 suggestions for working across generations:
All generations have similar values
Many people talk about enormous differences in values between older and younger people as if these differences were an established fact. The most striking result from CCL’s research is how similar the generations are in their values priorities.
Family is the value chosen most frequently by people of all generations. Other values named to the top 10 by all generations included integrity, achievement, love, competence, happiness, self-respect, wisdom, balance and responsibility. So why do people at work think the values of different generations are so different? Because even though the values are the same, the behaviours that go along with those values may be very different.
Everyone wants respect
We often hear younger people are disrespectful of older employees and people in authority. We also hear complaints that older people show no respect for younger talent and ideas. The reality is that everyone wants respect – they just don’t define it the same way.
Older people primarily talk about respect in terms of “give my opinions the weight I believe they deserve” and “do what I tell you to do.” Younger respondents characterise respect more as “listen to me” and “pay attention to what I have to say.”
The different generations have similar levels of trust in their organisation and in upper management – they don’t trust them much. People of all generations and at all levels trust the people they work with directly (bosses, peers and direct reports) more than they trust their organisations. And people trust their organisation more than they trust upper management.
People want leaders who are credible
What do different generations expect from their leaders? It turns out that age does not appear to matter much. People of all generations want their leaders to be credible, to be trusted, to listen well, to be farsighted and to be encouraging.
Organisational politics is a problem – no matter how old or young you are
Everyone who isn’t winning at the political game dislikes it. People from all generations are concerned about the effects of organisational politics on their careers, on being recognised for the work they are doing and for getting access to the resources they need to do their jobs. Even if they don’t like it, employees know that political skills are a critical component in being able to move up and be effective at higher levels of management.
No one really likes change
The stereotype is that older people dislike anything about their workplace being changed and that younger people love change. These assumptions are not true. In general, people from all generations are uncomfortable with change. Only 12 people in the study said they actually liked change! Resistance to change has nothing to do with age; it is all about how much one has to gain or lose with the change.
Loyalty depends on the context, not on the generation
It’s often said that young people are no longer loyal to their organisations in the way that young people were in the past. CCL research shows that younger generations are not more likely to job-hop than older generations were at the same age. In addition, people of all generations don’t necessarily think that being loyal in the old sense is good for their careers. The perception that older people are more loyal is, in fact, associated with context, not age. For example, people who are closer to retirement are more likely to want to stay with the same organisation for the rest of their working lives, and people higher in an organisation work more hours than do people lower in the organisation.
It’s as easy to retain a young person as it is to retain an older one – if you do the right things.
Just about everyone feels overworked and underpaid. People of all generations have the same ideas about what their organisation can do to retain them. They want:
Opportunities to advance within their organisation. Learning and development. Respect and recognition. Better quality of life. Better compensation. Everyone wants to learn – more than just about anything else. Learning and development were among the issues brought up the most frequently by people of all generations. Everyone wants to learn – people of all generations want to make sure they have the training necessary to do their current job well. They are also interested in what they need to be learning to get to the next level in their organisation.
Five developmental areas have made it onto every generation’s list: leadership, skills training in their field of expertise, problem solving and decision making, team building and communication skills.
Almost everyone wants a coach
We’ve heard that younger people are constantly asking for feedback and can’t get enough of it. We’ve also heard that older people don’t want any feedback at all. According to our research, everyone wants to know how he or she is doing and wants to learn how to do better. Feedback can come in many forms, and people of all generations would love to receive it from a coach.
So, what’s really different?
When it comes to a view of long-term employment, about 70 per cent of the boomers born in the late 40s/early 50s say they see themselves sticking with an employer for more than three years. That figure drops to a little less than 40 per cent when GenXer’s are asked the same question.
I’m assuming that, for the boomers, retirement is in the back of their minds (or maybe the front), and a three-year horizon would enable many to fulfill the related financial goals by not changing employers.
How knowledge gets transferred
Karl Kapp made a presentation to Lockheed-Martin Corporation titled “Bridging the Boomer/Gamer Knowledge Gap”. He underscored the fact that learning preferences do come into play:
Boomer knowledge is formal, structured, hierarchical, and based on a distinction between the interface and information.
Gamer (Net Generation) knowledge is informal, unstructured, non-hierarchical, and based on the assumption that the information is the interface.
When the Net Generation discovers a need to know, a person, group or online resource is put together in 15 minutes. If you still thinks it calls for a day in the classroom, then there’s a communication/learning gap.
Expectations of work
The silent generation – those born before 1943 and now in the retirement bracket – express a need for work that’s interesting, pays fair and recognises a job well done. Gen X folks say they want work schedule flexibility, bonus pay for outstanding accomplishment (versus pay for seniority), and a path forward in the organisation.
When we compare similarities and differences, it’s clear all age groups have common ground.
What I hope will be of relief to us all is the knowledge that the fundamental desires of people remain consistent through the ages (and age groups). Yes, we are different in some ways, alike in others.
Do generational differences matter? You bet. So do generational similarities. Instead of focusing solely on the differences, we need to understand and build on the similarities if we are to motivate knowledge sharing between and among the generations.
Steve Roesler is principal at the Roesler Group. His blog can be found at: www.allthingsworkplace.com, and he can be contacted at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Center for Creative Leadership: www.ccl.org; CCL Book – Retiring the Generation GAP, How Employees Young and Old Can Find Common Ground: www.ccl.org/leadership/publications/index.aspx?pageId=885