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Obsessing about generations at work is a total waste. Focus on this instead

While there are some significant differences between generations, these are rarely represented in popular discussions on the topic, which tend to describe differences not supported by any robust or reliable data.

Obsessing about generations at work is a total waste. Focus on this instead
[Source photo: SolStock/Getty Images]

After years of frequent and passionate discussions about generational differences, including what millennials want at work, why they’re is the most entitled generation in history, and how to instill a sense of belonging in your Gen Z workers, the tide is finally turning. Indeed, the last few weeks alone have seen numerous reports on why generational differences are utter nonsense, and why everything you hear about the subject is best ignored.

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As always, the truth is a bit more nuanced than either extreme suggests, so now is a good time to highlight some of the common flaws of popular discussions about generations, and what science actually reveals about the topic.

Let’s start with the problems, which are twofold. The first is that comments are often based on subjective impressions, anecdotes, or common sense; the second is that much of the data reported conflates generational differences with age differences, including many widely publicized surveys. Pick any survey you like, and there’s a 95% chance that they just report cross-sectional (rather than time-lagged) data, meaning they are simply evaluating differences between ages. 

Another issue is that even when these problems are addressed, and actual differences in a generation are reported, the effect sizes of generational differences are small, and scientific reviews had long concluded that the differences in generations are generally overhyped and overrated.

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There’s a real risk to not just generalize, but also stereotype, individuals within a generation. If you truly care about diversity and inclusion, then you should really try to pay attention to what matters most: individual rather than group differences. This means understanding what makes each person a unique human being, and how they differ from everyone else. This doesn’t require you to deny that group differences, including generational differences, may also exist. After all, there are also gender, age, cultural, and national differences in personality, values, attitudes, etc.

These limitations aside, we should not ignore the actual science on the subject, which over the past decades does indeed report some group differences between generations, even if they are general and small effects (they are still statistically significant, and perhaps also noticeable). These studies have the advantage of controlling for age while evaluating variability in generations. For example, by examining how people in their 20s felt about something in the 1950s, 70s, 90s, 00s, and so on. Here are some findings to highlight.

Satisfaction quotient

Older generations are slightly more satisfied with their jobs than younger generations. Since this effect is not driven by age, which is obviously positively correlated with career success (the older you are, the more advanced you are in your career), there are two obvious hypotheses here:

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  • jobs are less exciting today than in the past
  • younger people have much higher expectations for their jobs and careers, which perhaps explains why they are more likely to be disappointed

After all, the secret to happiness is to have low expectations and be pleasantly surprised.

Quitting quotient

Younger generations are also more likely to quit their jobs. This was true prior to the current Great Resignation and seems to have less to do with generational changes in job-hopping, than actual changes in the job market. For instance, in the US, the average job tenure for people aged 25-34 is less than 3-years, whereas, for those aged 55 or over, it is nearly 10 years. 

Work ethic

GenX and millennials express a weaker work ethic, see work as less central to their lives, value leisure, and seek more freedom and work-life balance than their predecessors. Not so long ago, we may have interpreted this as a sign of their laziness. Now we probably see this as common sense, and may even be a little envious of them. 

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Altruism

Contrary to popular belief, younger generations are less altruistic, so in a world that increasingly embraces ESG, prosocial behaviors, and mandate-driven careers, it is not really true that younger generations are more tuned to these causes than their predecessors. 

Narcissism

At least in the U.S., narcissism is rising, going up from one generation to the next. By today’s standards, a narcissistic personality of the 1930s would be seen as humble, self-critical, and suffering from imposter syndrome. Likewise, in fifty years’ time, we may look back at today’s world and see Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, and Kanye West as rather modest and low-key unless the trend can be reversed. This sounds both controversial and rather obvious at the same time, but for sure there are important ethical and moral implications to ignoring the rise of narcissism, entitlement, and delusional self-obsessions of grandiosity if we truly want to make the world a better place. 

While there are some significant differences between generations, these are rarely represented in popular discussions on the topic, which tend to describe differences not supported by any robust or reliable data. This often results in unfounded stereotypes about generations, which will always include a rich mix of people that represent all personalities, values, and abilities. Making an effort to understand each person for who they are, and treating them as an individual rather than a member of a demographic group, is not just the fairest approach, but also the most accurate psychological way to engage with them. 

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About the author

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University, cofounder of deepersignals.com, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab

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