Categorizing Workers by Generations: Helpful or Harmful?

New report examines research on generational differences in work-related attitudes and behaviors

By Nancy T. Tippins, Ph.D., Julie Schuck, Michael S. North, Ph.D. and Mo Wang, Ph.D. September 17, 2020
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Categorizing Workers by Generations: Helpful or Harmful?

Are Generational Categories Meaningful Distinctions for Workforce Management?, a recent Consensus Study Report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies Press, 2020), looked at the research on generational differences in work-related attitudes and behaviors. The purpose of the report was to provide a consensus of expert opinion on the quality of studies on generational attitudes and behaviors in the workforce, and to evaluate whether the concept of generations is meaningful for understanding and managing the workforce. The report also offers advice for workforce management. Below are some of the main findings:

  • Categorizing people into generations has popular appeal, and many articles have encouraged employers to respond to different generations' "unique values and skill sets," but stereotypes about generations cannot meaningfully inform workforce management policies.
  • Categorizing a group of workers by generation can lead to overgeneralizations and improper assumptions about those workers, and perhaps even discrimination. Employers and managers should focus on the needs of individual workers and the changing contexts of work in relation to job requirements instead of relying on generational stereotypes.
  • Although there is a growing body of scientific literature examining generational differences in work-related attitudes and behaviors, the findings do not support the idea of generational differences because study designs cannot distinguish generational influences from the influences of age or time period on individuals.
  • A few more rigorous studies have shown that variations in abilities, attitudes and values exist among individuals within any age group, and that new ways of working are affecting workers of all ages more generally.
  • Many other factors beyond one's generation influence worker attitudes and behaviors. People born in the same year or span of years may have some similar experiences. But they may also have very different experiences depending on such factors as socioeconomic status, geographic location, education level, gender, race/ethnicity and prior work experiences.
  • Studies have also shown that the use of "generational traits" can lead to prejudice, bias and stereotyping of individual workers.

The nature of work and the workforce is changing, and both are very different today than 40 or 50 years ago. Some broad social changes affecting the workplace include increasing globalization, rapid technological innovation, expansion of the service sector, growth in the employment rates of women and older workers, and increasing racial/ethnic diversity in the U.S. population. There are new types of occupations, new job tasks and new ways of interacting with co-workers and customers. Some changes have emerged gradually, while others have been more abrupt, in response to acute social and economic conditions (such as the adaptions made during the COVID-19 pandemic).

Employers should be guided in making any needed changes to employment practices and policies by a thorough assessment of their own work environment, job requirements and human capital.

Many employers will face similar issues in response to social changes. Examples include managing a more diverse workforce, recruiting workers of varied ages, varying employee needs with regard to job flexibility and demand for training across career stages. How each employer addresses these challenges should take into account its unique mix of employees, job requirements and work environment.

The effectiveness of specific practices will depend on such factors as the characteristics and size of the workforce, the culture of the organization, and the demands on and expectations for workers, as well as individual workers' own needs and expectations.

Organizations should develop effective ways of periodically identifying changes in their work environment and employees' needs, determining available solutions to these problems, and evaluating those solutions. In addition, they must have processes in place to collect and maintain workforce data and regularly monitor and assess the effectiveness of management policies and procedures.

The goal of effective workforce management is not to find permanent answers to workforce challenges that inevitably change over time. Employees' needs and values change, and employers' missions will adapt to broader societal changes. Therefore, possible solutions are constantly evolving.

The findings of Are Generational Categories Meaningful Distinctions for Workforce Management? are pertinent to the Critical Evaluation behavioral competency described in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK) and to several functional areas of the HR Expertise technical competency, including Talent Acquisition, Employee & Labor Relations and Diversity & Inclusion.

Download the report here.

Nancy T. Tippins, Ph.D., is principal of The Nancy T. Tippins Group LLC in Greenville, S.C. Julie Schuck is program officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) headquartered Washington, D.C. Tippins is chair of NASEM's Committee on the Consideration of Generational Issues in Workforce Management and Employment Practices, which produced the above-referenced Consensus Study Report, and Schuck was the study director. Michael S. North, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Management and Organizations, Stern School of Business, New York University. Mo Wang, Ph.D., is the Lanzillotti-McKethan Eminent Scholar Chair, Warrington College of Business, University of Florida.

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