Stereotypical BS or important? — Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Consulting — ReadySet

By Rachel Marcuse, COO

I got my first job as a manager when I was 15 years old. I was supervising the hosts at the “dream” home that was raffled off at a fair in Vancouver, Canada. I was managing staff 10 years my senior. And I was drunk with power. 

A lot has changed in my approach to people management between then and now (good thing) but a consistent current in my work has been managing people of significantly different ages than I am. At 16, I was managing mostly people in their 20’s. As I got older, that delta grew. I managed a major municipal campaign when I was 24, with many of the staff in their 30’s and 40’s.

In my graduate studies, my thesis focused on younger people managing older staff. This was 2012 and in both the literature and in my own original qualitative research, there were certainly a lot of stereotypes at play – generations are big categories with lots of people with very different life experiences – but there were some important differences, specifically around technology use and communication. 

Now, more than 10 years later, as an Elder Millennial (note: video has a swear) I work frequently with Gen-Z staff. And this generation does feel different to me. Talking to clients, and supporting them in their work – particularly around inclusive people management – many are facing challenges with managing across age differences.

Much has been written about the work ethic or different approaches of Gen Z employees, the great resignation, the move to hybrid or remote-first work places, etc. etc. but what does the research say? At ReadySet, we always want to make sure we’re relying on evidence-based sources so we can create impact. After all, our mission is to change the way the world works. 

So, we did a literature review. Spoiler alert: it would seem that generational differences at work are both real and B.S. I’ll be more precise – generational differences at work are real because perception is real and people across different ages and demographics report these differences. How statistically significant these differences are in terms of behavior, however, may move us toward the B.S. category. (And, of course, these are huge groups of humans who it will always be problematic to make broad generalizations about.) 

Pop culture differences in generational work styles are prevalent (and sometimes hilarious). While there is significant literature on intergenerational research prior to 2020 there isn’t an abundance of strong studies since the pandemic and the emergence of more remote and hybrid work – something that surely has changed the context with which teams made up of different ages work together. 

A 2020 study on virtual interactions post-Covid in the workplace, found that: “While younger age groups are perceived to be comfortable leveraging technology to communicate and engage in work tasks, older workers are often perceived to not be as comfortable despite a lack of empirical evidence on whether this is a measurable difference.” The authors also found that stereotypes and biased beliefs about different generations resulted in worse organizational outcomes. 

Rudolph et al. (2021) goes further…

Generationalized beliefs about the inflexibility and “out of touch” nature of older generations, or the laziness, self-centeredness, and entitlement of younger generations, have re-peated with remarkable consistency across recorded history….This results in a loss of important nuance and information about individuals, with results prone to either over- or underestimated age effects. Talking about generations is far from benign: it promotes the spread of generationalism, which can be considered “modern ageism.”

I don’t fully buy into this perspective, in part, because other research contradicts at least some of it. 

Earlier research, including a 2019 Canadian study, did find statistically significant differences by generation in the way in which employees are motivated (or amotivated). They found that Gen Z is more sensitive to amotivation than GenX and Gen Y (millennials). So, to give an example: a Gen Z staff member might be less engaged from what they perceive as lack of appreciation at work than an older generation. 

The study also found that intrinsic motivation (for example, finding satisfaction in the job because it aligns with one’s values) is more important to Gen Z than older generations. This has practical implications for how we structure our incentives. “Perks” don’t matter a lot to any generation, but employer branding as connected to mission, inclusivity, etc. may be particularly important for younger generations when attracting talent. Of course it also continues to be important to frequently connect the day-to-day work back to the “why” or the mission as a whole.

And if we move beyond the literature into the anecdotal, we hear about communication challenges where generations may miss each other entirely. In a recent workshop on inclusive communication that we facilitated at ReadySet, the group had a lively discussion on emoji use by generation. (Millennials, did you know that thumbs up can be interpreted as passive aggressive by younger generations?) Additionally, we see significant differences in the use of slang with many of us not quite knowing what younger people are talking about. (See this teacher’s attempt at a Gen Z dictionary – notably, he was called out on not initially recognizing the way in which Gen Z has taken a significant amount of the language from African American Vernacular English or AAVE.) 

We can’t ignore the intersectionality of age and other aspects of social identity here either. For much of my career, I’ve had the double bind of being young(er) and a woman. When I managed campaigns, volunteers would frequently walk into the office and ask for the campaign manager (me). “Can I help you?” I’d say. “Can I speak with the campaign manager?” they’d say again. “Yes. That’s me, I’d say.” More than once.

Folks of color, those with disabilities, queer people, and other underrepresented groups might feel a double, triple (or more) bind when combined with their age – whether it be on the lower or higher end of the age spectrum. These other aspects of identity also complicate our too-neat-and-tidy generational categories. 

So, what do we do to build inclusive and resilient organizations that reduce ageism, encourage collaboration across generations, and build engagement? 

From a management perspective, we at ReadySet strongly believe that *good* management is *inclusive* management and you can’t go wrong with lots of feedback, appreciation, time and space for relationship building, mentorship and more – regardless of age. 

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