Generational Differences: New Way to Discriminate?

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Apr 26, 2013
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There are now five generations in the workplace, and boy, don’t we know it. Seems like you can hardly pick up an HR- or business-related publication these days without some reference to one of these groups: the Traditionalists (1925-45), the Baby Boomers (1946-64), Gen X (1965-80), Gen Y or Millennials (1981-95), and Generation Zen (1996-present).

Is there too much emphasis on these generations and, most often, their differences? Are we reaching—or have we already reached—the point where this focus is becoming offensive to some employees? Many say we have.

Categorizing Perpetuates Stereotypes

“The entire generational question ruffles my feathers,” said Linda D. Henman, Ph.D., president of Henman PerformanceGroup in Chesterfield, Mo. “It’s the new way to discriminate and stereotype. We’ve worked so hard to get away from race, gender and ethnicity stereotyping, why in the world would anyone embrace a new way to cause trouble?

“I often ask what Osama Bin Laden, Tom Hanks and I have in common—we’re all Baby Boomers,” Henman noted. “But I don’t want anyone associating me with Bin Laden any more than star performances want to be lumped in with underperformers with the excuse that they belong to the same generation.”

Others agree.

“Is a focus on ‘generational differences’ offensive to some employees? Absolutely,” said Leslie G. Ungar, a communication and leadership coach based in Akron, Ohio. “In some ways it is as though we are focusing on blue-eyed people or short people because, truly, you cannot control what year you were born.”

“There are no two people alike. How can we categorize people by age?” observed Kathy Condon, an executive coach and career consultant based in Palm Springs, Calif. She notes that there are a variety of other filters—religion, parents, education, travel—that make us who we are. For HR professionals and managers, she said, “the key is to keep asking questions so you get to know the individual.”

But, like any stereotype, impressions are somewhat based on reality, said Patti Johnson, a workplace and career expert and CEO and founder of PeopleResults based in Irving, Texas. While acknowledging that generations “have likely habits and tendencies in the aggregate,” she said “the problem is when those stereotypes are applied to individuals.” This happens “when you start to assume that a 40-plus wouldn’t understand social media or new technology or that a millennial won’t want a job that requires structure and detail.

“I have seen these stereotypes work their way into decisions on candidates for jobs and even promotion assumptions,” she added.

Nothing New

Conflicts between generations are nothing new, of course, Barry Maher, a consultant, author and speaker based in Las Vegas, points out. “All through recorded history, people have been discussing how different—and usually how much worse—upcoming generations were. But, once you get past the superficial, differences between individuals become far more significant than differences between generations.”

That’s true, concurred Susan Gainen, a career counselor in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, who notes that the first use of “you young people …” dates back to the time of the Pharaohs. Gainen was trained in cross-generational communication by Lynne Lancaster, coauthor of When Generations Collide (HarperBusiness, 2003), which, she said, “continues to be one of the best and least judgmental discussions of generations.”

“Too often cross-generation discussions devolve into finger-pointing,” Gainen added.

The sensitivities may be most severe for Baby Boomers—and with good reason, Ungar said. “The focus on Gen Y and X leaves Baby Boomers sometimes feeling as though they do not have worth, or not as much worth as their younger cohorts,” she explained. And who could blame them for feeling this way? “The proof is that there is a heavy emphasis on the recruitment and retention of young members of the workforce.”

As another generation begins to enter the workforce, it is unlikely that the focus on generational differences will diminish. Still, there is much that HR professionals can do to change this.

Practical Solutions

“The more we point out differences the more different we become, rather than the more similar,” said Ungar. “The goal of most teams is to find the similarities, not the differences.”

“We should stop worrying so much about generational differences and focus on the commonalities that are part of every generation in the workplace,” agreed Roberta Matuson, president of Northampton, Mass.-based Matuson Consulting. “People want to be respected, feel valued and do good work. None of this has anything to do with age.”

Karin Cross is a life coach and business consultant at Crosswalk in the Raleigh-Durham area. In her role as a volunteer with AARP of North Carolina’s Aging Workforce Team, Cross has talked with many Baby Boomers who believe that their age has hampered their job opportunities. “Obviously, this creates a potential risk to employers for bad press, loss of customers and litigation.”

Cross suggests that “the most effective approach to maximizing performance and building an engaged workforce is to focus on identifying and utilizing individuals’ strengths, promoting the common goals and interests of work groups, and fostering collaboration within and across these groups.”

Although the intentions behind training programs that focus on generational differences were good, she said, these programs have “driven a wedge between the generations and given rise to many false assumptions.”

Shifting training programs’ focus away from generational differences to capitalizing on individual strengths to achieve workplace objectives provides more productive—and less divisive—conversation, Cross and others believe.

In her work, said Gainen, “I changed the focus of getting-along-at-work conversations to hone in on getting the work done.” It’s not that generational differences should be ignored, she clarified, but that they should be leveraged, rather than derided. “In the same way that a multigenerational trivia team always wins, a multigenerational work team that harnesses everyone’s strengths has an excellent chance of being very, very successful.”

The focus of HR, in all situations, said Johnson, should be “on results, talent and performance of individuals—not on the stereotypes of broader groups.”

She offered a final thought for HR professionals: “Anytime you start categorizing an entire generation, think about your high school lunchroom. For me, that lunchroom was wildly different in almost every way. A generation is bound by common experiences, but that doesn’t mean everyone is the same.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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