Generational stereotypes

Experts doubt that Millennials, ‘Silents’, Boomers and Gens X and Z are incompatible at work

Lindsay James
21 November 2016

4 min read

For the first time in modern history, the employment pool is a mix of five generations: the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Millennials, Generation X and Generation Z. To get the most out of this diverse workforce, experts urge businesses to ignore each group’s negative stereotypes and cross-train to maximize their strengths.

Workplace demographics are changing. While the oldest members of Generation Z (generally considered those born after 2000) are just beginning to enter employment, Millennials (born 1980- 2000) will comprise half the global workforce by 2020, according to PricewaterhouseCooper’s study titled “Millennials at work: Reshaping the workplace.” What’s more, although a large proportion of Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) and those of the Silent Generation (born before 1946) are of retirement age, many are choosing to stay employed.

“This means that, for the first time in history, five generations are working together,” said David DeLong, president of consulting firm Smart Workforce Strategies and a research fellow at AgeLab, a multidisciplinary research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Many experts believe that this creates a new dynamic resulting in a ‘generation gap,’ which implies that there are significant, meaningful differences between the generations.”


Millennials are often perceived negatively by their managers. “Never before have I experienced so much contempt for a generation,” said Robert Goldfarb, an 85-year-old management consultant based in New York and author of What’s Stopping Me from Getting Ahead? “Many CEOs have told me that Millennials are lazy, that they lack work ethic and that they’ve been spoiled by ‘helicopter parents’ who constantly hover around them. I find this characterization to be baseless and harsh.”


of Millennials would like to leave their current employer in the next two years, according to a global survey by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

Loyalty is another perceived issue for this generation. Global consultancy firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu surveyed 7,770 university-educated Millennials from 29 countries who were employed full time in large, private-sector organizations and found that, if given the choice, 44% would like to leave their current employer in the next two years. Conversely, a recent poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that more than 40% of interviewed Baby Boomers have stayed with their employer for more than two decades.

Older generations are often said by younger co-workers to be costlier and more set in their ways, according to Brian Beach, a research fellow at the International Longevity Centre in London. “They’re also said to be more frequently sick,” he said, “but the evidence actually contradicts this.” Assumptions aren’t always negative, however. “Millennials – and I’m sure the same can be said for Generation Z – are technically very adroit,” Goldfarb said. “Their greatest strength is their technical virtuosity – they can navigate new software far better than the older generations.”

Jean Martin, talent solutions architect at best-practice insight and technology company CEB in Arlington, Virginia, said Baby Boomers are valued because they hold much of the intellectual property that drives knowledge work, as well as the social capital of key networks inside and outside the organization and the tacit knowledge of ‘how things really get done around here.’ “Our data shows they have the resilience to handle pressure and cope with setbacks at work,” she said.

Andrew Morris, director at specialist recruitment agency Robert Half, based in Sydney, Australia, said that these generational assumptions are more than unfair – they interfere with team cooperation, workplace productivity and employee engagement. “These differences may also restrict communication, which can result in low staff morale,” he said. “This can cause employees to become disengaged and possibly even consider leaving the company.”


Whether positive or negative, Jessica Kriegel, organizational development consultant for Oracle Corporation and author of the book Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit From Ditching Generational Stereotypes, said that all generational assumptions are harmful. In fact, she said, the entire concept of a generation gap is a myth perpetuated by popular media, including movies and television.



“Of course there are differences amongst people, but these differences can exist within generations as well,” she said. “There’s absolutely no value in generalizing across a whole generation. You may see trends, but most of these are the result of studies which have a very small sample size. In the US there’s 80 million Millennials, but generalizations will be made based on studies with 10,000 people or less. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Yeesan Loh, design director and strategist at UK architecture firm Gensler, agrees. “Being born in a certain era does not make us cardboard cutouts of that generation,” Loh wrote in a recent blog post for Virgin Group. “Besides, one generation bleeds into another. What about people born on the cusps? Workers from more recently industrialized countries? There are many other contributing factors to consider.”


Stacey Truitt, an attorney and specialist in organizational training and development, based in Edwards, Colorado, believes that to successfully integrate the different generations in the workplace, companies need to banish stereotypes and encourage cross-generational work practices. “Several large companies I’ve spoken to have multigenerational advisory boards. That’s an interesting solution,” she said.

At technology firm Dell, GenNext is one of several employee resource groups that help promote cross-generational collaboration. “The GenNext group isn’t just for younger employees, but also includes more experienced team members from different job levels across Dell who support and provide knowledge to recent graduates,” said Tim Loake, UK director of Dell Services and co-executive sponsor of GenNext. “The group provides a real opportunity for all members to exchange ideas and for our organization to benefit from the unique skills that both recent graduates and ‘old hats’ bring.”

Reverse mentorships can also foster inclusivity. As part of a program that sees younger employees coach Baby Boomers, global financial services company Credit Suisse has partnered 28-year-old René Schrackmann with 53-year-old Daniel Niggli. Schrackmann is mentoring Niggli on a range of topics including social media, time management and multitasking.

“In our case, the matching worked very well,” Schrackmann said in an interview on the firm’s website. “Even though I’m actually the mentor, mentoring often goes in both directions. Daniel has been at Credit Suisse for 35 years. It’s fascinating to see such a career laid out before me and to reflect on how it matches my own plans for the future, along with his opinion of it all.”

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