It's now possible to find yourself working with people from four different "generations."
Definitions vary, but there's a broad consensus based on dates of birth. There are the "Baby Boomers" (born between roughly 1945 and 1964); "Generation X" (1965 to 1980); "Generation Y" or "Millennials" (1980 to 1995); and the newest kids on the workplace block, "Generation Z" (born after 1995).
According to some media reports, this range of different age groups turns the modern workplace into a minefield of misunderstanding, frustration and conflict. But is that really true, or is it just based on the lazy acceptance of unhelpful stereotypes?
What We Think We Know About Generations
We tend to accept and recycle views of the differences between generations without much criticism – particularly when it reinforces our own prejudices against groups that we don't belong to.
So, if you're a Millennial, you may be used to hearing stories about ambitious, self-centered Baby Boomers who don't much care for feedback.
Or, if you're a Baby Boomer yourself, you may despair of Generation Xers who aren't comfortable with authority or strict working hours, and insist on achieving work-life balance over getting the job done.
There may be some broad truth in such generalizations. But there's also plenty of evidence to suggest that the similarities between generations are more interesting than the differences.
Take perceptions of the Millennial cohort (or Generation Y, if you prefer).
There are now more of them in the American workplace than any other age group. Since they were first identified as a group, Millennials have had bad press, particularly from certain sections of the Baby Boomers. The stereotype that developed was of a high-maintenance, even needy, group with questionable loyalty.
Millennials, according to this narrative, jump between jobs at the drop of a hat, need constant reassurance about their performance, and are so wedded to tech and social media that they can barely interact face to face.
Research by IBM paints a different picture, however. In this version of the world, Millennials share many of the same career goals as members of other generations. They prefer their bosses to behave ethically and to share information, rather than to give constant positive feedback.
In learning new skills, they place more value on human interaction than some of their colleagues might expect, given their alleged dependence on the internet. And, compared with Generation X, Millennials will less likely switch jobs for more money, and more likely seek out work that interests them.
Evidence also suggests that attitudes to Millennials among older generations are softening – or maybe that they were never actually that hard in the first place.
In a survey of 1,000 workers across a broad age range, 82 percent said they would be comfortable reporting to a manager younger than them, while 91 percent said they would be prepared to manage employees older than themselves.
This sounds like a much more relaxed state of affairs than many "generational conflict" stories would have us believe.
What's a Millennial Anyway?
Part of the problem with the generational debate stems from grouping together people according to arbitrary age ranges. In fact, there are often age-based differences within generational groups that are just as important as those between those groups.
For example, think about the older group of Millennials born in the early 1980s. Recently, digital teamwork expert Erica Dhawan has described them as "Geriatric Millennials." It sounds kind of unflattering, even though she's one herself. The term "Xennials" has been around longer, and refers to broadly the same group, emphasizing the characteristics they share with Generation X.
Call them what you will, this cohort will have begun to encounter internet technology as teenagers, but in a relatively primitive form that many of them shaped to their own needs. They include a number of tech innovators, and many of them now lead fast-growing organizations.
Those born 10 to 15 years later will likely have first encountered the online world as younger children. They'll know about the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s, but it likely didn't impact their lives in the same way that it did for someone a decade or more older.
The same may be true of events outside the workplace. The 9/11 attacks had a profound effect on everyone who witnessed them, but would the effect they had on a young adult born in 1980 be the same as it was for an eight-year-old? And yet both, by some definitions, are classified as Millennials.
What's more, the attitudes of any particular group tend to change over time. A Generation Xer born in 1975 probably has a very different set of priorities and concerns in 2021 than they did when entering the workplace in the mid-1990s.
All of this suggests that although it's worth bearing generational differences in mind, they may not be as divisive as we think.
The Generation After Millennials
For the future, we are already receiving plenty of advice on how to get the best from the latest generation, inevitably tagged "Generation Z."
Digitally native, entrepreneurial, open-minded, and curious they may well be, but how much of an impact will these characteristics have on how they perform in the workplace? It's too early to tell. It would probably be wise, though, to focus on their behavior and impact as individuals, rather than to make assumptions based on their dates of birth.
Focusing on Similarity
Even if generational differences are less significant than we thought, there are undoubtedly times when they come to the fore. Older workers may find their younger colleagues less receptive to phone calls or face-to-face chats, for example. And younger workers may be frustrated by their elders' perceived lack of flexibility.
Our article on thriving in a multi-generational workplace offers some useful tips on getting the best from teams made up of a mix of different age groups. But, whatever strategies you use to blend different generations within your team or organization, it's worth emphasizing what they have in common, rather than what sets them apart.
One piece of research measured generational differences in attitude toward three key workplace "engagement drivers": future vision, growth and development, and recognition. The results barely differed.
So, if you attend to your individual team members' goals, give them space to grow as individuals, and recognize their achievements, you may not have to worry so much if they sometimes prefer a text message to a face-to-face meeting.
What experiences, good or bad, have you had of working with people from other generations? Are generational differences a myth or a reality? Do you simply object to such labels on principle? Let us know in the Comments section, below.