By now we're all familiar with the stereotypes of different generations in the workplace. Boomers are workaholics who respect authority and have a lifelong loyalty to their company. Generation X employees prize a work-life balance. Millennials float from job to job and flaunt managerial authority and are too busy texting to care what you think of that.
Given the popular consensus about office generational gaps—and the abundance of advice columns on bridging them—you'd think evidence for these traits would be strong. That's not at all the case, says management scholar John Bret Becton of University of Southern Mississippi. "We're always looking for a reason why people are different," Becton tells Co.Design. "But at least half of the research shows there's really not a lot of difference."
Some studies do find striking generational divides in the workplace. Based on personality data from more than a million people, psychologist Jean Twenge has concluded that Millennials might enter the workforce with "unrealistically high expectations" and difficulty taking criticism. Management scholar Paul Harvey recently told the New York Times that Millennial entitlement is a "real problem that managers are having" and suggests screening potential employees for the trait.
But plenty of other research suggests that popular portrayals might greatly exaggerate such character differences. A 2006 paper called the generation gap "more myth than reality," and a 2010 analysis of 26 peer-reviewed studies found that 18 failed to report any consistent differences among generations in the workplace. A more recent survey found that contrary to the entitled reputations of Millennials, three in five felt they had something to learn from their managers.
Becton's latest study, set for publication in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, lends support to both sides of the debate. Analyzing an applicant pool of roughly 8,000 workers from two organizations, Becton and collaborators did spot some evidence for common generational stereotypes. Baby Boomers showed fewer job changes than Gen X-ers or Millennials, and were (somewhat) more compliant to office rules; Gen X-ers, meanwhile, were less likely to work overtime.
But the effect of these generational differences on employee behavior was very small. So small, says Becton, that the stereotypes don't seem to merit all the attention they receive. The work doesn't support the idea of crafting unique management or hiring strategies for the various generations, as many companies do. Better, Becton says, to build office practices flexible enough to suit a variety of personalities.
"I read a lot of stuff all the time about how you need to cater to the Millennial generation, or Gen X, or Boomers," he says. "At least based on this study, I think that might not be worthwhile. Because even though there are some differences, they're pretty small in the grand scheme of things."
A big reason generational divides might mean less than we think they do is that "generation" itself is hard to define. People often disagree on something as basic as the years that bracket a given group. And even assuming that all Baby Boomers were born between 1945 and 1964, for instance, the cultural experiences of someone born on V-E Day and someone born the day Kennedy was shot could differ dramatically. The latter might easily identify more with Generation X.
"It seems arbitrary how we have segmented people and say, 'Oh, you fit into this generation,'" Becton says.
That's not to say generational gaps have no impact on a workplace. Technological changes are an obvious example. Older employees may indeed have a tougher time adapting to new office technologies than younger ones (though that's arguably a result of age more than generation), and recruiting for a position exclusively through LinkedIn is likely to attract a younger applicant pool.
What the conflicting evidence does suggest is that we're quicker to blame the generation gap for office differences than we probably should be. Writing on the subject recently at Entrepreneur, David Maxfield called generational blame an example of the "fundamental attribution error"—a tendency to attribute behavior to personal stereotypes rather than unique situations. Who knows: Maybe that Millennial texting away on the job is just a child urging a Boomer parent to get to work.