The Truth Behind Generational Labels in the Workplace

May 23, 2017 12:22 pm

My father-in-law, known by all as Grampa Limpic, is 95 years old. As a child, he grew up on a farm in the Midwest where telephones, radios, and indoor plumbing were a luxury. He lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Grampa worked for years at the same job selling restaurant supplies, and he was also a small business owner. He was married to his high-school sweetheart for 72 years. Grampa is part of the Greatest Generation. When we think of someone of his generation, we generally have a positive view. We also might have some less-flattering images, but Grampa defies the norm. He still lives in the same family home and recently renewed his driver’s license for another five years. 

Caregivers come to Grampa’s house twice a day, and he pays them using Google Wallet. He lives with his iPad by his side and uses Skype and FaceTime regularly. Grampa takes exercise classes with his much-younger friends and still makes weekly trips to Costco to “stock up,” even though he lives alone. Yes, he worries, especially about his health. 

And, he’s careful about his money. His world has undoubtedly shrunk over the years. It’s possible that his habits and values are a result of being a part of the Greatest Generation. But it’s also because he relies on a fixed income and doesn’t want to outlive his savings. And he wants to leave a legacy to his family. Is Grampa unique? Certainly. An anomaly? Maybe. But, I would ask, aren’t we all?

Describing the Generations

It has become the norm to identify and categorize people along generational lines. Author Jessica Kriegel, in her book Unfairly Labeled , states that we create generational stereotypes because we seek to find certainty in an uncertain world, and labels can be a shortcut to understanding. We often go beyond the idea of trends or patterns and begin to identify generational differences almost as laws of the universe. But as Kriegel, a Millennial, points out, it can be misleading when, “the only thing 80 million people have in common is an age bracket that is 20 years long.” We often fail to recognize the incredible breadth of socioeconomic and cultural differences within the demographic of each generation.

If I asked you to consider the generations in the workplace and write down several descriptors of each, no doubt you would be able to complete the task fairly easily.  Baby Boomers (those born in 1945-1965) could be described as “workaholics, rule-followers, technology-challenged, and resistant to change.” Generation X (those born in 1965-1980) could be described as “cynical, cliquish, slackers, and self-centered.”  Millennials (those born in 1980-1995) are often described as “entitled, lazy, narcissistic, and needy.”  Generation Z (born in 1995-2010) is just entering the workplace, but they are portrayed as “technological natives, realists, and future-focused.” We hardly know what to expect from Gen Alpha (those born after 2010), but they are likely to have global values and a kinesthetic approach to technology. But are these truly generational descriptors, and are they really accurate?

Generational Labeling

Generational labeling primarily started as advertisers sought to reach specific consumer demographics. But what may be an effective approach for mass-marketing is not necessarily effective from a societal or organizational perspective. For one, most of the generational labels and stereotypes are not based on any empirical research but rather are perpetuated by popular media. The reality doesn’t necessarily align with the hype. 

In 2014, IBM conducted the “ Institute for Business Values Millennial Survey,” and the findings revealed that generations are much more similar than different in many ways. For example, Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers responded very similarly: They want to make a positive impact on their organizations, they see the importance of solving social and environmental challenges, and they value working with a diverse group of people.

In 2016, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted a study, “Millennials: Misunderstood in the Workplace?” that evaluated the level of job satisfaction across generations. Of those surveyed, 86 percent of Millennials stated that they were satisfied with their jobs, compared with 88 percent of Generation X and 90 percent of Baby Boomers. The study also found that there was a great deal of similarity between Millennials and Baby Boomers in the importance that they place on job training (95 percent for Millennials and 88 percent for Baby Boomers), career advancement (89 percent and 73 percent respectively) and career development (88 percent and 76 percent). 

Generally, most employees seek respect and feedback from others and want to have work that is meaningful to their organizations. Simply stated, we want to develop and grow in ways that are relevant to us. As a global society, we are all affected by innovation and technology, social change, and cultural shifts. What we often label as generational differences may, in reality, be differences based more on life stages or experience rather than our birth year.

The next time you are tempted to categorize or vilify your coworkers over generational lines, ask yourself if you were discussing issues of race, economic status, culture, or gender, would you still consider the discussion appropriate? The better approach is to genuinely listen to others, learn from everyone around you, and treat people as the individuals that they are. Generational differences, as with any difference in the workplace, can be a source of innovation and strength. As fellow humans, there are many things that can be a source of connection. Imagine the benefits to each of us if we tightened our focus on what we share instead of how we are different. 

Leigh Limpic, SPHR-CA, CPC, is principal consultant for Cornerstone OnDemand. She has more than 20 years of human resources experience as an HR consultant and internal HR practitioner. At Cornerstone, she works collaboratively with clients to identify human resources and global talent best practices. Email her at [email protected] 


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