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Generational Differences Exist, But Beware Stereotypes

Researchers and experts often examine different generations in the workplace, looking for clues to improve management effectiveness. Recent studies suggest that employers should think twice before making stereotypical assumptions about individual employees based on age.

For example, although a stereotype exists that Millennials (those born after 1979, for purposes of this survey) are the “me” generation and have high expectations for employers, an international survey of hiring managers and HR professionals released Oct. 8, 2012, concluded that Generation X (thoseborn between 1962 and 1979 for purposes of this survey) is “the most demanding age group” in the workplace. “2012 HR Beat: A Survey on the Pulse of Today’s Global Workforce” reveals that members of Generation X request bigger salaries and higher job titles than those from other generational cohorts.

The independent study, conducted by Dimensional Research and commissioned by SuccessFactors, an SAP company, reflects the experiences of 1,533 HR leaders and hiring managers throughout the United States, Australia, France, the Netherlands, Germany and the U.K., who responded to an online survey fielded in September 2012. According to the report, job candidates from Generation X are most likely to ask for:

  • Higher pay (36 percent).
  • Hiring bonus (29 percent).
  • Higher job title (24 percent).

By comparison, Millennial-age job candidates are most likely to ask prospective employers for:

  • Training (40 percent).
  • Job perks, such as free drinks or time off to volunteer (33 percent).
  • Flexible work hours (23 percent).

Once employed, those from Generation X are most likely to request:

  • Promotions (44 percent).
  • Flexible work locations (39 percent).
  • Nonscheduled bonuses (38 percent).

Millennials are most likely to ask for:

  • Mentors (42 percent).
  • Training (35 percent).
  • Nonscheduled bonus (28 percent).

Respondents said Baby Boomers (born mid-1940s to mid-1960s) are much less likely to make requests of employers, regardless of whether they are job candidates or employees. Just 12 percent of respondents had received requests from Baby Boomer job candidates for more vacation time, for example, and just 14 percent had received requests from Baby Boomer employees for reduced work hours or an extended leave of absence, the most popular requests identified by the survey for this age group.

Managing Different Generations

An understanding of common generational differences may be useful, particularly when the age gap between employee and manager is significant; however, a significant difference in age does not lead to a significant difference in work style necessarily.

A CareerBuilder survey conducted by Harris Interactive and released Sept. 13, 2012, compared the preferences of managers and workers ages 25-34 with managers and workers age 55 and older, and found similarities and differences between the two groups.

For example, the survey of 3,892 U.S. workers and 2,298 U.S. hiring managers from each age group found that members of the two groups shared a similar preference for face-to-face communication over e-mail or text:

  • Face-to-face: 60 percent (ages 55 and over) v. 55 percent (ages 25-34).
  • E-mail/Text: 28 percent (ages 55 and over) v. 35 percent (ages 25-34).
  • Phone: 12 percent (ages 55 and over) v. 10 percent (ages 25-34).

There were a few interesting differences. For example, although members of the younger age group were more likely than their older counterparts to say they would work eight hours or less per day (64 percent v. 58 percent) and were less likely to arrive before 8 a.m. (43 percent v. 53 percent), younger workers were more likely than those in the older age group to work after leaving the office (69 percent v. 62 percent).

Moreover, members of different generations take a more distinct approach to workplace projects. Younger generations are more likely to want to plan, rather than “dive right into” a new initiative, CareerBuilder found.

Fifty-two percent of those ages 25-34 said they “like to skip the process and dive right into executing” compared to 66 percent of those 55 and older. Instead, nearly half (48 percent) of the 25-34 group said they “like to write out a detailed game plan before acting” compared to approximately a third (35 percent) of those 55 and older.

In addition, a majority of each group (62 percent of those ages 55 and over and 53 percent of those ages 25-34) felt it was important to stay in a job for at least three years. Members of the younger age group, however, were far more likely than those in the older age group to say that someone should stay in a job just until they’ve learned enough to move ahead (47 percent of those ages 25-34 v. 38 percent of those age 55 and over). In addition, more young workers said that someone should be promoted every two to three years if they are doing a good job (61 percent v. 43 percent).

“Age disparities in the office are perhaps more diverse now than they’ve ever been. It’s not uncommon to see 30-year-olds managing 50-year-olds or 65-year-olds mentoring 22-year-olds,” said Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder, in a news release. “While the tenets of successful management are consistent across generations, there are subtle differences in work habits and views that all workers must empathize with when working with or managing someone who's much different in age.”

Play to Generational Preferences and Strengths

Giselle Kovary, managing partner of n-gen People Performance Inc. and co-author of Upgrade Now: 9 Advanced Leadership Skills (n-gen People Performance Inc., 2012), offered SHRM Online some tips for getting the most out of members of different generations.

  • To get the most out of Baby Boomers, managers should express appreciation for their dedication, hard work and long hours.
  • For Generation X employees, managers should be clear about desired results and the rewards that will be provided for high performance.
  • Managers of Millennials should communicate the impact and contribution this cohort is making to the organization or team.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Generations Bring Unique Perspectives to Work, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, September 2012

Collaboration in the Intergenerational Workplace, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, August 2011

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