Talking About Our Generations: A Q&A with Michael S. North

Insights from a leading researcher on our increasingly intergenerational workforce

By Christina Folz Oct 6, 2017
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​Michael S. North, Ph.D.

​With five generations working side by side—and a historically large workforce over the age of 65—it's more important than ever for HR leaders to understand how to recruit, manage and retain employees of all ages. In his Oct. 2 talk at the 2017 SHRM Foundation Thought Leaders Solutions Forum, Michael S. North, Ph.D., shared his perspective in a talk titled "Engaging the Multigenerational Workforce: Research Insights and Best Practices." 

North is an assistant professor of management and organizations at the New York University Stern School of Business. His work, which is rooted in social psychology, focuses primarily on the challenges of the increasingly intergenerational workforce. He has published research in leading academic journals, including Psychological Bulletin and the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, as well as top business publications such as the Harvard Business Review. We asked him to share his insights about myths and stereotypes related to different age groups—and his advice for getting past them.

 

Q. Based on your research, what are some of the biggest myths about the multigenerational workforce and specific generations?

A: At the macro level, many people mistakenly believe that the generations are in direct competition with one another in the workplace. In other words, they think that, if one generation does well, it is at the expense of the other. As it turns out, 40 years' worth of data show that this so-called "lump of labor" theory does not hold true. On the contrary, the labor outcomes of older and younger workers are positively correlated—i.e., when the economy does well, everyone wins, and when it tanks, all generations lose. 

Specific generations also face significant misconceptions. One of the biggest is the idea that generational labels are useful to begin with. There is surprisingly little evidence in the literature that proverbial generational brackets, such as "Millennials" or "Generation X," predict much of anything in the workplace, even though people anecdotally feel that they are meaningful. 

Other myths include older workers' presumed lack of innovation (research shows no age differences in this domain) and reluctance to adapt (in fact, younger employees are actually more resistant to change, according to studies). On the younger side, Millennials are sometimes thought to be entitled and narcissistic, but in reality this generation embraces collective work and corporate social responsibility—which is precisely the opposite of self-entitlement, in my opinion.

 

Q. What are some of the biggest benefits of having an age-diverse workforce? And what are some of the main challenges?

A. The biggest benefit is the potential that members of all generations have to learn from one another. Older workers bring "soft skills" to the table that are severely undervalued in the workplace. These talents include loyalty to the company, emotional stability, wisdom and problem-solving. Younger workers have much to gain from this skill set, and a great deal to learn from those who have an "organizational memory," or understanding of why the company does things a certain way. 

At the same time, older employees often admit that their junior colleagues have greater technical know-how, and they clearly stand to learn a lot from them. That said, we must be careful not to assume that older workers are incapable of mastering new technologies—another negative stereotype.

 

Q. What are some of the most annoying stereotypes about your own generation?

A. I'm an older Millennial, so for me it's the perception that my generation is coddled, entitled and ill-mannered. I teach younger Millennials and find that many of them genuinely want their career to serve the greater good and to make the world a better place. 

Moreover, I'm not convinced that these perceptions are unique to Millennials; many of the same perceptions afflicted Generation X and even Baby Boomers when they were younger. In fact, people have complained about younger generations for thousands of years. Consider this quote attributed to Socrates from 400 BC: "The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers." 

 

Q. What one piece of advice would you give you HR leaders about how to cultivate a healthy multigenerational work environment?

A. Recognize that generational labels are really broad, and there are enormous individual differences within these age brackets. Also consider the importance of getting members of various ages in the room with one another to speak openly about their differences. A manager at a Big 4 accounting firm once shared a story about Millennial employees who were disrupting others by playing Pokemon Go in a client parking lot. But instead of yelling at these workers or dismissing them as a lost cause, she invited them to take part in a thoughtful, open, multigenerational conversation. It helped clear up misunderstandings and get everyone on the same page. 

Even though people of various ages might have different expectations vis-a-vis communication and work styles, this kind of exchange can go a long way to fostering understanding. At the end of the day, we're all human. 

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