Do you still believe in generational differences? I hope not. At least not now they’ve been fundamentally discredited. Again. In a new study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers have discovered there are more differences within generations than there are between generations.
Although it’s easy to see why we point at someone’s age – whether they’re older or younger – as a cause for why they’re challenging. Especially in a media environment in which we’re saturated with articles telling us specifically how to manage Baby Boomers or how to get the best out of Gen Y. (Curiously barely a peep about Generation X.)
Another reason why these perceptions persist is that almost all prior studies have prematurely assumed there are differences between generations. What they’ve neglected, however, is that just because Gen Y might on occasion be driven by rewards and entrepreneurialism, or just because Boomers might on occasion be driven by stability and respect, doesn’t mean that all of them, or even the majority, feel that way, or that they even do so consistently.
And that’s what makes this fresh research so compelling – and hopefully convincing. The data comprised more than 600,000 individuals across a span of eight years. As far as sample sizes go, they rarely come much bigger than that. And what the scholars found was, well, pretty much nothing: “the magnitude of generational differences is small to near-zero”.
To be precise, only 2 per cent of an employee’s attitude can be attributed to their generation. In other words, 98 per cent of how we think, act and feel has nothing to do with the age group in which we’re placed. Which means two members of Gen Y, for instance, are far more likely to have greater differences between them than, say, a member of Gen Y and a Baby Boomer.
Hence why the researchers suggest managers should “approach news articles describing generational differences with a healthy skepticism”. You’re better off finding out what engages employees based on who they are as individuals, not who they are as generations. That would involve taking time to discover their individual goals, individual motivators, individual learning styles, individual work preferences, individual values, and so on.
That exercise alone will demonstrate just how flawed these generational stereotypes can be.