Do generational differences really affect workplaces? And is this a bad thing?

How many times have you heard that Gen Y workers want too much too quickly and have unrealistic expectations about their career progression?

How many times have you heard how inflexible and set in their ways Baby Boomers are? In fact, according to one recent survey, the Baby Boomers are currently the most unpopular workplace demographic: “Generation X reportedly found their mature colleagues to be inflexible and set in their ways, while Generation Y can’t handle the boomers’ ineptitude with technology.” *

Our online poll last week asked “Is there a noticeable difference between the generations in your workplace?”  

The response was:         Yes – 62%          No – 38%

But really, are there many workplaces where everyone has identical values, life experiences, expectations and working styles?

Isn’t it too simplistic to simply lump people into a Generation category and assume that they will behave in accordance with some predetermined generational behavioural style?

In their 2009 study “Career stage and generational differences in psychological contracts” **, Narelle Hess and Denise M. Jepsen found that “despite widespread colloquial use of generational cohort groupings such as Baby Boomer, Generation X and Generation Y, (there are) greater similarities than differences between the different the generational cohorts.”

Another recent study conducted by research scientist Jennifer Deal and published as “The Myth of Generational Differences in the Workplace” *** reached a similar conclusion:Our research shows that when you hold the stereotypes up to the light, they don’t cast much of a shadow. Everyone wants to be able to trust their supervisors, no one really likes change, we all like feedback, and the number of hours you put in at work depends more on your level in the organization than on your age.”

Narelle Hess, whose study is quoted above and very conveniently happens to be Challenge Consulting’s Organisational Psychologist also had this to say on the subject in an email to me: “Perhaps the question should have been can you tell whether someone is born in 1981 (Gen X) or 1982 (Gen Y)? Probably not. Should you start managing those born in 1981 completely differently to those born in 1982? Probably not. So, why are we still talking about generational differences?”


Another Challenge Consulting team member, Carmen Mackrill, commented, “I don’t think the effect is as big as everybody would like to think. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether part of the “impact” is born from an expectation that there should be a difference. However, if we define generations purely in terms of ages, I believe there are differences in the way younger workers approach problems, social situations, obligations, etc,  as opposed to older workers, but this has always been the case … nothing necessarily new.”

Our Senior Account Manager, Patricia Hegarty, said “I think it largely depends on how the more experienced, senior staff interacts with their younger peers. If expectations are made clear across the board and everyone is treated with the same level of respect then the generational differences should not generally have an impact within the workplace.”

Ultimately, as with every area of life, employees and employers within any workplace should be united by a common goal: the continued growth and success of the organisation. Differences will always be encountered – of approach, experience, style, education, execution, communication, etc – but, if embraced as a positive, these differences can be united as a source of strength. Having a pool of individuals from all generations to tap into – what an opportunity for success!


* “Leadership, Employment and Direction ‘Generations’ Survey” [link]


** Narelle Hess, Denise M. Jepsen, (2009) “Career stage and generational differences in psychological contracts”, Career Development International, Vol. 14 Iss: 3, pp.261 – 283

*** Jennifer Deal, “The Myth of Generational Differences in the Workplace”, [link]