Generational Differences: Myth or Reality?

Traditionalists (otherwise known as Matures or the Silent Generation), those born before 1946, are hard-working and detail-oriented. They are disciplined and like consistency and uniformity. They are stable and loyal, and, at work, they are concerned about healthcare and retirement benefits and possibly being discriminated against because of their age. Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, were indulged as children and are generally optimistic; they work hard and believe in self-improvement. They are driven but uncomfortable with conflict. At work, they put in long hours and are concerned with competition from the coming generation. Gen Xers, those born between 1965 and 1979, were alienated as children and do not respond well to authority and are willing to challenge it; they tend to be skeptical. However, they are practical in their approach to work and are technologically savvy. Millennials (or Generation Y), those born between 1981 and 1995, were protected as children and their parents are often their BFFs. They are digital natives and like to collaborate but are also achievement-oriented. They like to multi-task and are self-assured. They like to be autonomous, but also feel they deserve to be recognized and rewarded. They are used to working in teams and have a can-do attitude at work.

You have no doubt read many generalizations like the above that have been made about these four generations, and the challenges organizations have because these four generations are working side-by-side in the workplace today (see for example, Hawley, 2009; Taylor, 2014; and Twenge, 2006). In addition to these four generations, organizations are already starting to hire members of Generation Z, those born after 1995. Despite the many descriptions of these generations and their differences that are found in the popular press, the reactions from researchers and the scientific community have been quite mixed. In fact, it is one of the few topics in social science research today for which there is no end of controversy and debate. The more tempered of the researchers would say that we should exercise caution in making these generalizations because the evidence is not yet in. On the other hand, there is another group of researchers who have concluded that the evidence just does not exist, and that generational differences are for the most part artificial. They explain that it is difficult to separate the effects of age and life stage with shared experiences (or cohort effects). Others go further and argue that it is dangerous to even consider generational differences because it stereotypes people of different generations. Furthermore, such differential treatments might lead to age discrimination lawsuits, at least in the United States.

In the media and among many managers I have spoken to, however, these differences seem real. A few of these managers express genuine frustration with the attitudes of some Millennials, and there have been many articles written about them, from how they should be treated, the kinds of work environments they prefer, their work-life balance, and their desire for continuous feedback. Price Waterhouse Coopers has made it a point in its recruiting to target Millennials, and to develop human resources practices to engage and motivate them. Other managers I have interviewed shared their concerns about Millennials managing older workers. In Silicon Valley, there are many start-ups where Millennials are finding it challenging to manage other Millennials.

Why the continued appeal of contrasting workers’ attitudes and preferences from a generational perspective? There are several explanations, and I offer the following, some of which are based on the hypotheses that Steel and Kammeyer-Mueller (2016) have suggested. First, we have a tendency to stereotype and make generalizations about groups of people. It simplifies our thought process and provides us with mental short-cuts. Generational grouping is one among many dimensions where it seems almost second-nature for us to believe that the differences among them are indeed real. Second, we know from evolutionary psychology that as a species, we humans make spontaneous ingroup-outgroup categorizations; even when the criteria for categorizing are sometimes trivial (like preferences for certain paintings or even certain colors) we affiliate ourselves with those who we feel we have something in common (Tafjel and Turner, 1986; van Vugt and Park, 2009). Forming these generational categorizations is not at all surprising, given that different generations have a presumed number of experiences in common.

Third, following attribution theory, our stereotypes are reinforced when we attribute the causes of behavior to a generational characteristic. For example, a manager attributes the difficulties a Baby Boomer employee may be having with a new technology being introduced in his company because he is of that generation that does not like technology. Fourth, our stereotypes are further reinforced because of cognitive biases – specifically availability and representative biases. As an example of availability bias, note that lottery organizers like to publicize their winners so when people are thinking about buying that lottery ticket, they will remember examples of these winners. Similarly, when we think about Millennials, examples that come to mind are from the media or from our recent encounters with millennial employees. With representative bias, we tend to generalize from a Baby Boomer or two and conclude that they are representative of the entire generation.

As mentioned earlier, the debate about generational differences is far from settled, with the skeptics arguing that many of these differences can be explained in part by age, life stage, or career stage, while others argue that there are in fact generational cohorts that we can view as belonging to different categories based on common shared experiences (e.g., World War II for Traditionalists, the Civil Rights movement for Baby Boomers). There are actually two sets of arguments here. The first argues that categorizing individuals by generation ignores individual differences. Costanza and Finkelstein (2015), for example, argue that “The key to managing a multigenerational workforce effectively is for managers not to make decisions about employees using their generation as a shortcut to their characteristics and needs but rather to measure critical individual differences as well as to track the gradual developmental and demographic changes that occur within and among individuals over time.” (p. 317)

The second argues for not using generation at all as a category to differentiate individuals. Here are Costanza and Finkelstein again: “The assumption that grouping people into arbitrary cohorts on the basis of supposedly impactful events they may have experienced in a common way will somehow magically make them much more homogeneous on those variables is not only unsupported by the research but also runs counter to what we know about individual differences.” (p. 321)

However, while those proponents of generational differences argue that individuals who have more or less experienced what sociologists call “history-graded influences” (such as the independence of Singapore for Singaporeans or the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 for Filipinos) can potentially impact their developmental outcomes, this does not suggest that everyone will be impacted in the same way. As Lyons et al. (2015) stated: “… within-cohort variance does not disprove the existence of generations; it is an interesting empirical feature of generations that helps us to delineate patterns of thought and action within the generation.” (p. 351) For example, organizational behavior researchers analyze employee data by looking at groupings such as length of service. The assumption here is that in general those with differing lengths of service might have different attitudes about the organization – and in fact, they often do. This is not to deny the existence of variation within each of the categories of length of service, but simply to use a grouping variable to understand patterns. Similarly, market researchers segment potential customers through such variables as age and gender. Advertisers charge more for TV ads that are targeted for that coveted 18-49 segment.  Furthermore, as Banaji and Greenwald (2013) have pointed out, “It is not possible to be human and to avoid making use of stereotypes.” In fact, they suggest, we have stereotypes based on different categories, and we rarely stereotype persons on one category alone. It is the combination of these categories that allows us to form an impression that makes each person unique.

The reality for many managers is that more and more of them are facing multiple generations of employees in the workplace. Furthermore, millennials alone are expected to be 50% of the workforce by 2020. This adds even more complexity and another dimension to the diversity of the workforce (in addition to other dimensions such as race, gender, and cognitive styles). My advice to managers is the following. First, be aware of your own assumptions and biases with regard to different generations. Increasing your self-awareness by checking with others and asking for feedback should be part of a manager’s toolkit. Per, a Swedish Baby Boomer manager recently hired to manage a group of very young engineers at a high-tech start-up, initially started by giving a lot of autonomy to his team. To his surprise, not everyone responded well, with some of them asking for more structure and more direction than Per would have expected from these Millennials.

Second, learn to adapt a flexible style especially when communicating with different team members. While this might go against your natural preference, fight the tendency to always stay in your comfort zone, especially when selecting how to communicate with others. The most successful salespeople and presenters make it a point to know their audience and tailor their messages accordingly. Learn about and practice different styles so you will be able to draw on these different styles as needed. Third, make an effort to learn the wide range of social media platforms available. Most of us know about LinkedIn and Twitter, but what about Pinterest and Yammer? How much do you know about these tools, and how the extent to which your organization is using them as communication tools for employees? Read about, and/or ask colleagues and your direct reports, about how you can use some of these tools to improve your communication.

Fourth, seek commonalities among your diverse team members to build cohesion and a common purpose, and learn how to use these differences to your team’s and organization’s advantage. Kathy, a marketing manager for a consumer products company, built a highly effective team made up of different generations of members by involving them in developing a challenging goal for the team (in her case, to create a successful marketing campaign in 12 months) and drawing on the different types of expertise within the team for contributions. Another example of using generational differences effectively is the practice of reverse mentoring, which companies such as Cisco, MasterCard and HP have implemented successfully.


Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot. New York: Delacorte Press.

Costanza, D. and Finkelstein, L. (2015). Generationally Based Differences in the Workplace: Is There a There There? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8 (3): 308-323.

Hawley, C. (2009). Managing the Older Employee: Communicate, Motivate, Innovate. Avon, MA: Avon Books.

Lyons, S. et al. (2015). Generational Differences in the Workplace: There Is Complexity Beyond the Stereotypes. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8 (3): 346-356.

Steel, P. and Kammeyer-Mueller (2015). The World Is Going to Hell, the Young No Longer Respect Their Elders, and Other Tricks of the Mind. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8 (3): 366-371.

Tafjel, H. and Turner, J. (1986). The Social Identity Theory of Group Behavior. In S. Worchel and W. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations, pp. 7-24. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Taylor, P. (2014). The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Slowdown. New York: Public Affairs.

Twenge, J. (2006). Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitles – and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free Press.

Van Vugt, M. and Park, J. (2009). The Tribal Instinct Hypothesis: Evolution and the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. In S. Sturmer and M. Snyder (Eds.), The Psychology of Prosocial Behavior, pp. 13-32. London: Blackwell.