Why Using Generational Labels Doesn't Serve HR

What employees want from work has more to do with their life stages than their ages, so let's ditch their stereotypes.

By Kathryn Mitchell, SHRM-SCP November 27, 2016

​Kathryn Mitchell

Back in 1990, a 24-year-old HR clerk made a bold suggestion during a departmental lunch. That person was me. I proposed that our company amend its leave policies to allow parents to use sick time to care for their ill children.

Silence blanketed the room. Forks froze in midair, and eyeballs darted back and forth as my co-workers sought visual confirmation that they had heard me correctly. I could not have generated a more dramatic response if I had suggested that we cover our heads with whipped cream. But that was life in 1990 for a young upstart from Generation X. We were viewed as cynical individualists and slackers—and we were so very different from our elders.

Or were we?

I was the youngest person in what was then called the personnel department, but only by a year or two. In reality, the difference in our points of view wasn’t generational; it was situational. I was the only one in our group who had young children at home.

That brings me to a question that’s been nagging me ever since I was introduced to generational studies 15 years ago: Is an employee’s age a reliable factor in determining the most effective HR or management strategies? I say no, and here’s why: Age brackets are not as important to what motivates us at work as what I think of as "stage" brackets, which are those phases of life (such as relationship-building, home-starting, child-rearing, elder-caregiving, hobby-pursuing, career-growing and soul-searching) that can occur for different people at different times.

Is Gen Z Really That Different?

Generation Z (those born in 2000 or after) includes an estimated 61 million members according to census data, and this youngest working generation has everyone talking. In recent months, numerous articles have tumbled into my inbox declaring that members of Generation Z are quite distinct. Yet from the descriptions given, I, too, appear to be from this generation, as are many people I know! I base my conclusion on the following reported Generation Z traits and their corresponding realities.

Trait 1: They want to enter the workforce early and receive on-the-job training in lieu of traditional college degrees. According to a 2015 study by Universum, an international research and consulting firm, this conservative approach parallels their moderate financial outlook.

Reality: Considering the current U.S. economic climate, rampant student loan debt and a shifting labor landscape in which many college graduates are struggling to secure jobs that match their majors, this generation’s pragmatism reflects a societal shift or a stage bracket that applies to anyone with similar concerns, regardless of age. In fact, I also took this nontraditional route when I entered the workforce.

Trait 2: They value opportunities for advancement over being well-compensated. A 2014 study by Millennial Branding, a Generation Y research and consulting firm, and by Randstad, an HR services company, compared the workplace preferences of the two youngest generations. According to the Millennial Branding website, 42 percent of Generation Y finds money to be the most effective motivator, yet only 28 percent of Generation Z identifies money as their primary incentive, choosing the opportunity for advancement as their greatest motivating factor (34 percent).

Reality: This difference in money as a motivator most likely is due to Millennials being at a different stage in their lives as many seek to buy homes and start families. Likewise, money motivates employees of all ages who are in a high-cost stage of life, whereas advancement will be more motivating to anyone in a career-building stage.

Trait 3: They are entrepreneurial and expect to succeed. A 2014 survey conducted by Northeastern University found that 63 percent of Generation Z respondents want to learn about entrepreneurship, 42 percent anticipate working for themselves someday and 65 percent predict they will be more successful than their parents.

Reality: My coming-of-age period saw a healthy growth of entrepreneurial spirit, too, and my generation remains interested in this option. In fact, a 2013 study by job board Monster in collaboration with Millennial Branding found that 41 percent of Generation X, 45 percent of Baby Boomers and 32 percent of Millennials regarded themselves as entrepreneurial. Striking out on one’s own just goes hand in hand with dreaming in America, and any variety of experiences can spark that entrepreneurial spirit at any age.

Trait 4: They are cautious about sharing personal information online, and they prefer to communicate in person. In fact, the Millennial Branding/Randstad study shows that 51 percent prefer face-to-face communication while only 16 percent would opt for e-mail and 11 percent would favor instant messaging.

Reality: Those percentages were nearly identical for Millennials in the same study. This shift isn’t generational so much as it is societal. We often bear witness to disastrous consequences of oversharing online, and most of us are coming to realize that in-person communication is most effective. This is leading to an increasing number of us saying "Enough!" and opting to reconnect with others face to face.

Trait 5: They value equality and diversity. In the Northeastern University study, 74 percent of those surveyed believed in equal rights for transgender people, and 73 percent believed that same-sex couples should have the right to marry.

Reality: There’s no question that Generation Z has been shaped by the profound demographic shifts of the past two decades, but those changes have impacted us all. Widespread acceptance of diversity is growing, as evidenced by our first black president and by the legal protections now offered to same-sex marriages. While it is encouraging that Generation Z demonstrates an unprecedented respect for diversity, let’s not forget that our older generations are the architects of the progress we have seen.

Stop Pigeonholing People

While generational studies such as these noted can offer valuable insights, they should not be construed as definitive traits. Furthermore, connecting with every generation, including the next one, doesn’t rely on treating each age group differently. Applying a broader knowledge of diversity and societal shifts is far more effective. Managing people is never simple, and employees will vary in how much they value certain aspects of work, such as flexibility and compensation, at different points in their lives. We need not only to understand that but also to grasp that people of all ages want many of the same things, including trust in their employer, the opportunity to connect and be heard, and the ability to make a difference in their world.

At the end of the day, these things have nothing to do with which generation you belong to. They have everything to do with who we are as human beings. 

Kathryn Mitchell, SHRM-SCP, is an HR training and development consultant in Arlington, Texas, with 25 years of HR experience.

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