For some time, leaders have struggled to understand the differences among generations in the workplace. It’s been daunting for many to figure out how to respond differently to four generations all working side-by-side. And, as a result of this seemingly impossible management conundrum, many have thrown their hands up and done nothing.
It’s unfortunate that in an attempt to simplify the landscape, the different age groups have been reduced to caricatures with incomplete generalizations. Because the reality of this situation and the path forward for leaders who want to meet the needs of each generation is actually much simpler than we’ve realized.
Recent research conducted by Olivia Gamber and myself suggests that when it comes to workplace priorities and beliefs, our similarities among generations are much greater than the differences between them.
We studied the responses of nearly 800 individuals from all generations in our 2015-16 study, “Workplace Priorities and Beliefs Across the Generational Divide” (in partnership with The Insight Advantage). Specifically, we explored the perspectives of four groups:
- Young Millennials (age 18-26)
- Older Millennials (27-34)
- Gen Xers (35-50)
- Baby Boomers (51-69)
And what we discovered contradicts much of the US-based conventional wisdom and overly simplified characterizations of workers of different ages.
For instance, much of the current literature suggests that millennials tend to be considerably less satisfied with their career development than other generations. We found that no statistically significant difference exists in the level of career development satisfaction of workers based on age. The percentage that are “somewhat” to “very satisfied” ranges from 66% to 72%; and the difference in level of dissatisfaction with career development is insignificant.
And, there is no shift here when input from Young Millennials and Older Milennials is combined into an All Millennials total.
Similarly, a snapshot of the workplace priorities held among the generations reflects more commonality than differences and offers leaders some powerful guidance across generations. Looking across generations at average scores, the five highest rated priorities are:
- Having a boss you respect and trust
- Interesting work
- Fair treatment and respect
- Achievement and accomplishment
- Learning and growth
Fair treatment/respect, and interesting work appear among the top five priorities for all generations. And surprisingly, promotions, compensation, and empowerment show up in every age group’s bottom 5 priorities.
We also explored the beliefs held by employees to further understand generational differences, only to uncover more similarities. For instance, the following three statements appear as one of the five most strongly held beliefs for all four groups studied:
- One of a manager’s fundamental roles is to support his/her employees’ career development
- Managers should show interest in their employees as people
- Respect should be based upon performance not organizational level
For more information about this study and the results, see our research summary, “Workplace Priorities, Beliefs & Practices: A Generational Snapshot.”
For leaders, this study points out the when it comes to generations in the workplace, the differences are not black and white, but rather a lot of shades of gray. And, it sheds some comforting light on the challenge of differentiating management and engagement practices based upon a worker’s age. Certainly each individual is unique, but on a fundamental and operational level, generations are not as different as some literature might suggest.
Rather than developing wildly diverse generation-specific strategies, leaders can instead adopt a set of more general — and more powerful — practices that will engage all employees:
- Treat employees fairly
- Demonstrate respect
- Show interest in employees
- Find ways to make work interesting
- Actively support employees’ career development
Timeless human practices like these allow for a unified and effective approach to leading anyone, no matter their age or generation. And this just may be the best way to bridge the generation gap.
Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.
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