The generations are at war, or so we are led to believe. According to research, so-called Millennials, those born between 1980 and 1995, believe they cannot move up career ladders because the baby boomers, those born between 1945 and 1964, are blocking the way. In response, some management academics and consultants point to the need for organisations to work out how they are going to manage multi-generational workforces, reducing any potential conflict and instead harnessing the power of this diversity for competitive advantage. Proponents of the value of segmenting the labour market — according to the generation of a given worker — have found a ready audience with considerable interest in how the attributes of the different generations might be leveraged to maximise business performance.
Observers have argued that there are differences in work values, communication styles and teamwork activities among employees from different generations. It has been suggested, for instance, that boomers live to work while Millennials work to live. Boomers are said to be loyal, while younger generations want immediate recognition as well as a life outside of work. They are less willing to hand over their lives to the company. Millennials, it is said, prefer to work in teams and believe in collective action. It is also suggested that different generations have different communication styles with baby boomers and generation X preferring to communicate in person or by telephone, whereas Millennials prefer using digital platforms.
The evidence suggests, however, that it is inappropriate to discuss generational differences in this way. Research studies have failed to demonstrate most of the supposed attributes of different generations. Notably, no evidence has been found for generational differences in some work motivations (e.g. job security and good pay), and even where differences in certain workplace behaviours have been observed (e.g. job mobility, disciplinary action, and willingness to work overtime), statistical effect sizes are small, meaning that organisations need to be cautious in implementing strategies that emphasise the supposed unique values and characteristics of different generations rather than applying general strategies to all employees.
Focusing on so-called generational differences is problematic as this overlooks differences among people in the same age cohort and ignores the importance of other forms of social identity. Thus, it seems highly improbable that regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality and place of birth, people all demonstrate the same attitudes, values and preferences because they happen to have been born within a few years of each other. Instead, it is likely that intra-group differences outweigh generational differences and that the power and the extent of generational differences have been overstated.
There is not much to be gained at a workplace level from consideration of the needs and values of different generations, and potentially a lot of harm done through the reinforcement of age-based stereotypes.
From a wider social and economic perspective, too, there is a need to challenge those who would have us view current economic and social transformation through the lens of generational conflict. The politics of generational division serves both young and old poorly. For instance, research conducted by the OECD demonstrates that there is not a “lump of labour” that must be shared out among the workforce, but instead that employment rates for older and younger workers tend to move together. Thus, older workers are not keeping jobs from the young, or vice-versa. There is, therefore, a need to focus on job creation for both young and old, a need to promote generational solidarity over division.
Older people’s advocates should be concerned about tomorrow’s older workers who may struggle to build adequate retirement wealth in the fragmented careers of the “gig” economy. At the same time, young people have an interest in older people’s continued contribution to communities and to workplaces as this will help maintain economic growth and social cohesion. What is required is a counterpoint to a general cacophony of generational disharmony. Here the role of Age Discrimination Commissioner, previously used as a vehicle for older people’s advocacy, could be re-cast as aimed at promoting generational understanding and solidarity. It is in everyone’s interests that we resist the temptation to tear up the generational contract. After all, Pete Townshend, who famously, at 20 years old, wrote the lyric “I hope I die before I get old” in the song My Generation, is now aged 72.
*Philip Taylor is a Research Fellow at Per Capita and holds professorial positions at Federation University Australia and the University of Melbourne. He is the author of What’s age got to do with it?