The Generation Game: who’s booming now?

Monday, March 14, 2016 - 16:26

By AIM Senior Research Fellow Dr Samantha Johnson

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. George Orwell

Hey there, Gen Ys and Gen Zs, how are you going working with the Gen Xs and Baby Boomers?  Are you tearing your hair out coping with old fashioned views and approaches to work and life? 

And how about you – Baby Boomers and Gen Xs, how are you going with the Gen Ys and Gen Zs? Assuming you have some Gen Zs creeping into the workplace.  If you’re not managing them yet, you will be soon! How’s that working out for you?

I can hear the cries for help from here!  From everyone! 

I can’t tell you how often I hear tales of frustration and despair coming from people who are finding workplace relationships and work approaches challenging because of apparent generational differences. 

Perhaps I can help.  The first thing to do is to clarify differences.  They’re not related entirely to age.

There are three types of identities that we develop that all contribute to work-based conflict:

  1. Cohort identity.  The time an individual joined an organisation or profession.  You become part of a particular cohort.
  2. Age identity.  Age and their era growing up, baby boomer (1945-1965); Gen X (1965-1979); Gen Y (1980 – 1994); Gen Z (1995 – 2010).
  3. Incumbency identity. The experience of a certain role during a certain time.

Cohort Identity

We develop a cohort identity with the group we are a part of during a significant event or at a similar time.  We develop this identity with fellow recruits when we first join a profession or organisation. We form similar work tendencies and attitudes. 

Age and Era Identity

The well-known, but exaggerated, generational difference based on age and the era in which we grew up.  Key social and historical events that occur during a person’s youth strongly influence values and attitudes that become clear in the workplace. 

Incumbency Identity

Sharing experiences of a role or level with others who were at the same level or in a similar role during the same period of time.  Groups of managers who operate in a similar manner during a particular period of time may form an identity. This generates comments such as ‘That’s not the way we did it…” or “These young managers, they’ve got it all wrong! When I was a new manager…..

Unconscious Bias

Sometimes we can develop inter-generational resistance and biases toward people who are not ‘like us’.  This means that we resist sharing information, skills and knowledge with people who are not part of our generation.  We can become judgemental.  This behaviour enhances the power and the resources of the group that chooses not to share, but it’s to the detriment of others in the workplace and it can lead to conflict and divisive behaviours.

This type of resistance can reflect favouritism for one’s own group and biases towards others and it forms stereotypes and critical judgement.  It results in perspectives not being shared and colleagues who lack professional relationships and respect for each other.  It’s almost always hurtful and damaging, in both the workplace and in life generally.

So here are a few tips to help you avoid this particular bias:

  1. Don’t believe everything you read about generational differences, much of it is untrue.
  2. Reflect on your own cohort and incumbent identities.  How have these influenced you?
  3. What assumptions are you making of those who approach work differently? Are these helpful?
  4. Embrace difference…really embrace difference, it’s hard, but it’s important and rewarding. 
  5. Remember the old saying, ‘treat others as you would have them treat you.’ When it comes to accepting other people at work and choosing not to take part in generational conflict, this old adage is powerful. 

The bottom line here is that there is not one generational group that is superior to any other.  Nor are there massive psychological or characteristic problems with any one generational group – neither those before or after you. 

Walk away from the generational biases, they’re damaging and unhelpful.  You’re far better off working well with individuals and individual differences, than gathering groups of people and slamming them with judgement and assumption.  It’s a bad look.

Go have a coffee with a baby boomer or a Gen Y, you might just enjoy it.  Then get together regularly.  Grab a few people from each generation and share work tendencies, perspectives and ideas.  You may be surprised how powerful this can be. 

Inter-generational mentoring and support groups.  Sounds like a good idea to me.

Reference: Joshi, A., Dencker, J.C., Franz, G., & Martocchio, J.J. (2010) Unpacking Generational Identities in Organizations. Academy of Management Review. 35(3), 392-414.