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Generational Similarities Trump Differences in Workplace

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Macel Ely
June 16, 2015

groupIn recent years, much emphasis for training has been placed on the need to understand evolving demographic changes in the workplace. Both public and private sector administrators often hear about the need for better understanding and managing different generations represented in today’s economy. In practical terms, there are some stereotypes which suggest that generations are completely different in their worldviews, work ethics and values. Recent research, however, indicates there may be more similarities than differences among the generations. At least much is the same in the top tiered priorities represented by the different generations representing today’s workforce.

As public administrators, it is essential that we understand the importance of generational differences but also those similarities that are shared among employees. If too much emphasis is placed on differences, perhaps there is a risk of not bridging the generational gap due to a lack of celebrating and leveraging commonalities that bring employees together.

Mencl and Lester  recently conducted research on what generations’ value in the workplace, which indicated there are consistent similarities among Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y employees currently in the workforce. Among research variables used to represent work values, Mencl and Lester’s findings suggested that seven out of the 10 work values studied in their research showed significant similarities among all three generations. Those seven similar work values included:

  • Teamwork.
  • Flexible work arrangements.
  • Work-life balance.
  • Having a job that challenges.
  • A company that provides continual training and development opportunities.
  • Employee is involved in decision-making processes that affect employee’s work.
  • Being financially rewarded for the work employee does.

The only three variables showing any standard deviation among the three generations were as follows:

  1. An organization that values diversity.
  2. Getting immediate feedback and recognition from supervisor.
  3. Career advancement opportunities within the company.

Founder and CEO of PeopleResults, Patti Johnson warns those working in the human resource sector to be deliberately cautious to not over utilize stereotypes, even those based upon research, when making individual decisions. Johnson states too often generational stereotypes are used to foster discrimination on individuals in places of employment instead of recognizing that each individual is different. Johnson offers,

“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.”

Lyons and Kuran also argue to wait for additional research to be conducted before senior leaders, executives and administrators completely transform their way of working based upon the current body of literature available addressing generational differences.

To date, academic research on generational differences in work-related variables has been descriptive rather than explanatory … Despite a recent explosion of research concerning generational differences in the workplace, scholars and practitioners are presently faced with a confusing disarray of evidence generated in a variety of contexts, with different methodological and theoretical perspectives on the nature of generations.

Linda Henman, leadership development author and president of Henman Performance Group, perhaps says it best when she states,

“The entire generational question ruffles my feathers … 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 … But I don’t want anyone associating me with Bin Laden any more than star performers want to be lumped in with under-performers with the excuse that they belong to the same generation.”

With all this in mind, it is important that while researchers continue to find answers on behaviorisms and preferences of the generations, practitioners must be discerning and avoid falling into a trap of discrimination based upon stereotypes. Each individual in the workplace has his or her own work style preferences, weltanschauung and values. Perhaps it’s time to focus on similarities while sorting out the differences.

Author: Macel Ely serves as training manager of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), an agency of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service. Established in 1949 by the Tennessee General Assembly, MTAS provides technical advice and training to cities and towns across the state: their governing bodies, mayors, city managers, city recorders and city department heads. Ely frequently speaks upon the subject matter of generations in the workplace to local and state government employees. He can be reached at macel.ely@tennessee.edu.

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