Categorizing workers with generational labels like “baby boomer” or “millennial” to define their needs and behaviors is not supported by research, and cannot adequately inform workforce management decisions, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
Instead of relying on generational stereotypes, employers and managers should focus on individuals’ work needs. The report, Are Generational Categories Meaningful Distinctions for Workforce Management?, says that varied values and behaviors among workers are more likely to reflect differences in their ages, career stages, job experiences, and general changes in society and work conditions, rather than their generations.
Broad changes that affect workplaces, such as globalization, increased age diversity among workers, fast-paced technological innovation, and more team-based work, have created demand for new employment practices and management techniques to help companies and employees adapt. Some popular narratives suggest employers should be responsive to generations’ unique values and skill sets. But the report’s assessment of the scientific literature on generational differences in work-related attitudes and behaviors says this research is limited by study designs that are unable to distinguish generation effects from other changes over time, making assumptions about generations of little use to employers.
“Much of the research that’s been done to date on the differences between ‘Gen Z’ or ‘boomers’ in the workplace has serious limitations, and can mislead employers about what their workers actually need,” said Nancy Tippins, principal at The Nancy Tippins Group, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Our report explains how researchers could improve future studies on how age and societal change affect an individual’s values and behavior, and make their results more useful for informing management decisions.”
Flaws in Research on Generational Differences
Contrary to popular narratives, the committee found, rigorous studies have shown that individuals from the same generation are just as likely to be different from one another as they are from individuals born in other generations.
The report says much of the research looking for generational differences is based on data collected at a single point in time, such as through a survey, and cannot reveal how generations’ attitudes or values have changed or stayed the same. This type of research fails to distinguish between generation, period, and age effects, limiting the utility for management decisions.
Studies that have found millennials are less concerned with career advancement than with achieving work-life balance, for example, can be better explained by age differences or current work conditions. Other research has shown that the centrality of one’s career declines until age 65, regardless of generation. Since the 1990s, Americans generally have tended to place greater importance on jobs that provide security, high income, and opportunities for advancement, all of which have become more difficult for workers to attain.
Recommendations for Employers
While the concept of generations or generational differences can be useful in some instances, the report says it can also lead to prejudice, bias, and stereotyping in the workplace. Managers should avoid labeling a group of workers by attributes that may not apply to all, or that could change as workers age or as the nature of their work changes. An employer’s best management options are those consistent with its mission, employees, customer base, and job requirements, and should be flexible enough to adjust to changing worker needs. The report recommends employers use a thorough assessment of their own work environments, job requirements, and human capital to guide how their practices and policies should shift, and have processes in place to regularly re-evaluate employment practices such as recruiting, training, diversity and inclusion, and retention.
Recommendations for Researchers
Researchers interested in identifying generation effects or generational differences should take steps to improve the rigor of their research designs and the interpretation of their findings. They should decrease the use of cross-sectional designs with convenience samples, and recognize the fundamental challenges of separating age, period, and cohort effects. Future research should also give greater attention to using samples that are representative of the target populations of interest, and to design instruments such as surveys to ensure that measured attitudes and behaviors are the same across time and age groups.
Researchers who want to examine the relationship between work values, attitudes, and behaviors in the workplace should identify and better understand the many influences on workers. Doing this would include paying attention to the experiences and contexts unique to individuals and different types of jobs; the economic, political, and social forces that affect employment more broadly; and the impacts that generational stereotypes and biases might have in the workplace.
The study — undertaken by the Committee on the Consideration of Generational Issues in Workforce Management and Employment Practices — was sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.