Talking About Your Generation?
There’s been much media coverage recently concerning how expectations and values vary between different generations of employees. According to standard categorisation, Baby Boomers (those born between about 1946 and 1964) tend to work for the same employer for long periods, have a high work ethic and are highly competitive in climbing the corporate ladder. Generation X (1960s to the early 1980s) are more restless and frequently change employers. Likewise, Millennials (sometimes known as Generation Y, including those born between the early 1980s to the early 2000s) are less materialistic, wishing to make a positive difference to the world, achieve a healthy work-life balance and find personal meaning at work. Generation Z is now starting to enter the workforce and will be highly socially networked, with little organisational loyalty.
Employers are interested in categorising generations in this way because they fear the effect of a demographic time bomb – advance planning means they can (hopefully) increase motivation, improve employee retention and plan for the worst case. However, recent research from Oxford Economics* has looked at one of these groups - Millennials - and found that its members generally do not confirm to the stereotype; in some cases they are less likely than other groups to seek these ideals!
It comes as no surprise to me. The idea that we can categorise what people want from employment based simply on the year they were born makes sweeping assumptions – it’s highly dangerous, ‘generationalist’, and no more accurate than astrology.
My cynicism makes sense when you consider all the possible variables that might influence our values and beliefs, not least of which are gender, race and religion. If they were not enough, add to that their economic background, education, parental occupation, health, personality and nationality (we can’t assume that Generation X in one country is the same as Generation X everywhere else). Even the town you grew up in is a factor - a generation that grew up in an economically depressed area will feel very different about work than those living in a prosperous area, especially if work has been difficult to find and hold on to. Finally, let’s not forget that not everyone works in a large corporation and we shouldn’t assume that self-employed people can be categorised in the same way.
Some studies have even found greater commonality between generations than within them, particularly regarding how people seek out responsibility and influence. Some Baby Boomers would have been very happy to sit at home, rebelling against nothing and wanting to be like their parents rather than climbing the corporate ladder. Some Millennials want to find deep personal meaning, others just want to get paid for a day’s work (or no work); many people in their 50s and 60s are more ambitious, focused and technology-literate than 20 year old university graduates. Neither can we ignore the impact of life events on workplace attitudes - at the point they start a family, many people change their career expectations, possibly becoming less mobile and with a different attitude to change. This could happen at any point, so it’s possible that life stage is much more important than generation.
What can we conclude from this? If companies want to understand what their employees really want, basing a strategy on assumptions about age and generation is just lazy and may lead to some serious errors in judgement. The focus should be on individual factors, regardless of when someone was born - let’s not generalise about generations.
Available at http://www.oxfordeconomics.com/workforce2020