Generational Differences At Work Are Small. Thinking They’re Big Affects Our Behavior

Look around your workplace and you are likely to see people from across the age span, particularly as more Americans are working past age 55. In fact, the Society for Human Resource Management argues that there are a full five generations on the job today, from the Silent Generation to Gen Z.

A result of this boost in age diversity are conversations about how generational differences will impact the functioning of our organizations. After all, Millennials only want to communicate with coworkers via text — and Baby Boomers don’t text, right? And you need to attract those tech-y Millennials with promises of flexible work schedules, but their older counterparts all want a traditional workday, correct? Well, actually, wrong.

Most of the evidence for generational differences in preferences and values suggests that differences between these groups are quite small. In fact, there is a considerable variety of preferences and values within any of these groups. For example, a thorough analysis of 20 different studies with nearly 20,000 people revealed small and inconsistent differences in job attitudes when comparing generational groups. It found that, although individual people may experience changes in their needs, interests, preferences, and strengths over the course of their careers, sweeping group differences depending on age or generation alone don’t seem to be supported.

So what might really matter at work are not actual differences between generations, but people’s beliefs that these differences exist. These beliefs can get in the way of how people collaborate with their colleagues, and have troubling implications for how we people are managed and trained.

Why Do We Have Inaccurate Beliefs about Age?

An emerging area of research in the field of Industrial-Organizational Psychology considers age-related beliefs from two different but intermingling angles. Work on age stereotypes looks at the content and impact of beliefs about people from another age group. A stereotype about young people, for example, might be that they are narcissistic.

A relatively newer concept called age meta-stereotypes looks at what we think others believe about us based on our age group.  A young person, then, might worry that other people think they are narcissistic, even if the other people are not actually thinking this. If both of these processes are occurring in an age-diverse workplace at the same time, employees are likely having knee-jerk thoughts about what other people must be like (stereotypes) while simultaneously assuming that the same people are making assumptions about them (meta-stereotypes).

Our research suggests that workplaces are brimming with age-related stereotypes and meta-stereotypes, and that these beliefs are not always accurate or aligned. In one survey of 247 young (18-29), middle-aged (33-50), and older workers (51-84), people described the qualities that might be true of people in another age group (their stereotypes). They also described the qualities that other people might have about their own age group (their meta-stereotypes).

The pattern of their responses varied by age group. People’s stereotypes of older workers were largely positive and included words like “responsible,” “hard-working,” and “mature.” Yet older workers themselves worried that others might see them as “boring,” “stubborn,” and “grumpy.” The stereotypes of middle-aged workers were largely positive (“ethical”), and they believed the other age groups would see them as positive (“energetic”).

Stereotypes about younger workers were somewhat less positive, however, resulting in more of a range of stereotypes from positive (“enthusiastic”) to negative (“inexperienced”). Even so, younger workers believed that others would see them in a more negative manner than they actually did (“unmotivated” and “irresponsible”). Broadly, these results demonstrate that older and younger workers believe others view them more negatively than they actually do. These cases confirm that neither age-related stereotypes or meta-stereotypes are accurate.

How Do Inaccurate Beliefs About Age Affect Our Workplaces?

Despite their inaccuracy, people’s beliefs have critical implications for workplace interactions.  In one laboratory experiment, we asked undergraduate students to train another person on a computer task using Google’s chat function. Another undergraduate was asked to listen to the training and then perform the task.  We varied whether each person — the trainer and the trainee — appeared to be old (approximately 53) or young (approximately 23) using photographs and voice-modifying software.


We found that stereotypes about older people’s ability to learn new tasks interfered with the training they received. When trainers believed that they were teaching an older person how to do the computer task, they had lower expectations and provided worse training than when they believed they were teaching a young person. These results demonstrate that poorer training is a direct result of age stereotypes. The potential consequences of these findings are alarming, as inferior training can result in reduced learning and ultimately interfere with employees’ job performance.

Moreover, people’s beliefs about what others think about their age group — their meta-stereotypes — can also interfere with their work behavior. A recently published studyexamined how people react to meta-stereotypes over the course of a work week.  As expected, sometimes people react with a sense of challenge (“Oh yeah? I’ll show them!”) and sometimes they report more threat (“Oh no, what if I live up to this negative expectation?”).

Importantly, these reactions can also impact interpersonal behaviors at work. Both threats and challenges led to conflict at work (things like arguing or not getting along with colleagues) and avoidance behaviors (things like keeping to oneself and avoiding interacting with others).

We also considered the implications of meta-stereotypes for mentoring relationships in law and in medicine in another study that we recently presented at a conference with our colleagues. Surveys of mentor-protégé pairs suggested that protégé attempts to overcome meta-stereotypes sometimes had a negative effect on their relationships. Specifically, when protégés tried to deemphasize their youth by appearing or acting older, their mentors were less supportive.

So What Should Managers Do?

If there are not real and consistent differences between people of different age groups, but these stereotyping and meta-stereotyping processes end up creating artificial generational divides, what is a manager supposed to do?

First, openly talking about these stereotypes and meta-stereotypes can be a great first step. Combining this effort with practices in perspective-taking (e.g., role-taking, role reversal exercises), cooperating (e.g., emphasizing the advantages of working with an age-diverse group), and sharing of stories among age-diverse employees can help people recognize and possibly call attention to these processes when they creep into the workplace.

Another strategy that can be effective might be emphasizing shared goals. By doing so, both older and younger people can see themselves as part of the same team working toward the same outcome. Indeed, focusing on commonalities or a common directioncan reduce perceptions of “us” versus “them” and can create or reinforce a sense of “we.” 

Finally, managers would benefit from recognizing that employees often change over time due to varying priorities, demands, experiences, and physical capacities. These changes can take many forms. For instance, research has shown that people face different types of work-family conflict at different stages of their lives, from young adulthood through middle adulthood and into late adulthood. However, not every employee within the same age group will have the same experiences at the same exact time. Therefore, engaging in an ongoing and open dialogue with employees to discuss shifting needs can help managers keep their hard-working and experienced employees engaged, happy, and productively collaborating with others for the long haul.

Eden King is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University. She is pursuing a program of research that seeks to guide the equitable and effective management of diverse organizations. She has also partnered with organizations to improve diversity climate, increase fairness in selection systems, and to design and implement diversity training programs.

Lisa Finkelstein is a professor in the social and industrial-organizational psychology area of the psychology department at Northern Illinois University and a fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She conducts research on diversity, stereotypes, and stigma at work, including age, disability, body weight, and gender, among others. She also studies mentoring relationships, high potential designation, and humor at work.

Courtney Thomas is a doctoral candidate in the Social-Industrial/Organizational program at Northern Illinois University. She conducts research on person perception related to topics like stereotyping, stigma, and diversity. While her research mainly focuses on the aging realm of diversity and inclusion, she also conducts research on other stigmatized identities like disability and obesity.

Abby Corrington is a fifth-year graduate student who spent time in the corporate world prior to joining the Industrial/Organizational Ph.D. program at Rice University. She conducts research on the different ways that people express and remediate discrimination. She has received several grants for her work and has published in Journal of Vocational Behavior and Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion.


Device-Free Time Is as Important as Work-Life Balance

The idea of “work-life balance” is an invention of the mid-19thcentury. The notion of cultivating awareness of one’s work versus one’s pleasure emerged when the word “leisure” caught on in Europe in the Industrial Era. Work became separate from “life” (at least for a certain class of men) and we’ve been struggling to juggle them ever since.

Today, when so much work and leisure time involve staring at screens, I see a different struggle arising: a struggle to find a healthy balance between technology and the physical world, or, for short, “tech/body balance.” A 2016 survey from Deloitte found that Americans collectively check their phones 8 billion times per day. The average for individual Americans was 46 checks per day, including during leisure time—watching TV, spending time with friends, eating dinner.

So attached are we to our devices that it’s not unusual to have your phone with you at all times. We carry our phones around everywhere as if they are epi-pens and we all have fatal allergies. Consider: two weeks ago, as I was beginning a consulting project at a midtown Manhattan corporate office, I found myself making a U-turn on the way to the restroom. I needed to go back to my office to pick up my cellphone, which I had inadvertently left behind. It was an unconscious decision to go back and get it, but my assumption was clear: I needed to take the phone with me to the bathroom. Was I going to make a clandestine call from a bathroom stall? No. Was I dealing with an urgent business matter? Fortunately not. So why did I need my phone with me while I took care of a basic physical need? I didn’t really know. But apparently 90% of us use our phones in the bathroom.

According to recent data from Nielsen, 87% of Singapore’s 5.4 million population reports owning a smartphone, while a smaller but still substantial 68% of Americans own smartphones. A hefty 89% of American workers have reported feeling chronic body pain as a result of the posture they’ve developed using these devices, and 82% of this same group also say that the presence of phones “deteriorated” their most recent conversations. Pew Globalrecently released a report about the correlation between smartphone use and economic growth, noting that the rates of technology-use are not only climbing steadily in advanced economies, but also in countries with emerging economies. As additional reference points, 39% of the Japanese population reports owning a smartphone, while 59% of Turkey reports relying on mobile internet use. These numbers decrease in developing countries, given the relationship that exists between a person’s educational background, socioeconomic status, and their access to technology.

But whether we are among those who use our devices to work remotely, or we are just obsessed with them because of the culture we live in regardless of how much time we are spending on “work,” it’s time to shift our attention to what tech-body balance could look like.

I decided to launch a two-week, informal experiment to explore what tech-body balance might look like, even as I failed to embody it. I divided my experiments into three categories, based on three basic bodily needs:


For me and for many, the time in bed before sleep is a time to finally stop focusing on tasks to do and bask in feeling unfocused and empty-headed. For me, this means mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or Twitter to tire out my eyes until I am ready for sleep. Sometimes, I’ll mindlessly scroll for as much as an hour. So one night, I decided to impose a time limit. I gave myself five minutes, and they went by in one second. At the end of them, I felt annoyed by my self-imposed discipline and wanted to keep scrolling, even as I realized I had not learned anything new or even been entertained by the activity.

Sure, my work-life balance is fine in those moments, as I’m not writing work emails in bed (though yes, I have done that too). But what about my tech-body balance? My neck is strained while looking at my phone, my wrists tire from scrolling, and my attention is fully dedicated to my brightly lit device, rather than winding down for sleep.

Since imposing a time limit didn’t work very well, I decided a more drastic experiment was needed. I tried using a real, old-fashioned alarm clock to wake myself up (rather than the alarm on my phone), and left my phone in the charger a short walk from my bed. Embarrassingly, this felt like a radical decision to make—and you know what? It was. I didn’t look at my phone before bed, and instead let myself think in the dark, and let my eyes tire on their own.


Our bodies and minds need fuel to function properly, and eating food is what gives us fuel. Of course, eating can introduce complications like digestive malaise when stress is in the picture (at least that’s true for me), or when I, like so many of us, inhale my food while sitting at my computer writing emails, thinking about a million things at once. 

I tried to stop staring at screens while I was eating, but honestly, it was hard. I was not able to make this a regular habit due to pragmatic concerns like a busy day or not enough time to eat lunch. But I tried it on several occasions, and that in itself felt illuminating.

What if you chose, once a week, to eat one meal alone without your phone or a computer nearby? It might feel unsettling, but you will feel your body, and you may find you are even able to eat more slowly, chew more carefully, and enjoy your food a lot more.


Personally, I love talking on the phone while walking, and find that my ideas are more organic and free to arrive at my mind when I am on the move. I decided that my first experiment here would just be to walk during more of my phone calls, rather than take them seated at a desk, staring at a screen. Sure, you may be distracted by your surroundings while you are walking, but it is dynamic distraction that prevents you from looking at another device. (I don’t know about you, but I have the awful habit of writing emails while on calls).

To try out something more radical, even scary (as much as I am embarrassed to admit it), I decided to take a walk the other afternoon during the work day, and very deliberately left my phone behind. More than usual, I felt little reminders pop into my head, tempting me to get my phone to jot it down in G-cal or in my Notes app. But instead, I had to experience the discomfort of knowing that I’d either remember what I needed to remember organically, or simply forget and accept the consequences. It was uncomfortable to take this walk, particularly as I did it during a day when I felt stressed and busy at work. But of course, the counterintuitive wisdom I hoped for did arrive: the break from the stressors of my phone and computer gave me a sense of spaciousness and freedom, even though there were distinct moments of panic and disorientation. At one point, I reached into my pocket and felt the cortisol rush as I genuinely thought I lost my phone.

As you can tell, I didn’t have an easy time with this experiment, and it was certainly not a strict “digital detox.” But I think that tech-body balance shouldn’t be extreme. Extreme behavioral shifts strike me as unsustainable and unproductive. Like work-life balance, finding tech-body balance is a constant experiment, and one that is different for everyone. Tech, like “work,” is something that’s mostly a positive thing for each of us, and for the world we live in. But it is important to remember that we often do not need our phones with us, regardless of how much it may feel like we do.

Charlotte Lieberman is a New York-based writer and editor. Charlotte graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, where she majored in English. You can find her at @clieberwoman.




There Are Differences In What the Generations Want From Work

I was doing some research for a client and came across this report from Monster:  Monster Multi-Generational Survey, published in 2016. The underlying survey was concluded in January 2016 and surveyed more than 2,000 across the Boomer, X, Y and Z generations.

I’m actually not a big fan of reports that show how differently each generation at work needs to be treated. I’m more in the camp of how to bring people together rather than solidify their differences. However, this is a very useful report. It’s not long, but it’s full of interesting tidbits. In its descriptions of each of the four generations active in the workplace today, these are the top motivators by generation.

The generational differences are fascinating. And it’s our job to figure out how to retain these differently motivated employees while we bring them together into effective work groups. A daunting challenge to be sure.

Of particular interest, I think, are the data that describe the differences in technology demands and expectations between the generations. This is a fascinating glimpse into how each generation relates with technology at work and which technology tools they view as most important:

This is a terrific overview of the workplace preferences of each generation. And while we don’t want to build walls between the generations, we certainly do want to leverage technology in a way that will enable higher levels of productivity as well as more complete and effective communication.

I’m always looking for ways to break down walls between employees and create stronger more compelling workplace cultures. Using information like this to more effectively communicate and to build strong relationships make this report interesting.

You can download the report here. It’s a pretty quick read – well worth the investment of your time.

China Gorman is a successful global business executive in the competitive Human Capital Management (HCM) sector. She is a sought-after consultant, speaker and writer bringing the CEO perspective to the challenges of building cultures of humanity for top performance and innovation, and strengthening the business impact of Human Resources.


Fed up with the Millennial mindset? You might be a Xennial, according to expert who says micro generation born between 1977 and 1983 are a 'mix between pessimists and optimists'

  • Australian Professor Dan Woodman says there is a new micro generation
  • Those born between 1977 and 1983 are Xennials, a mix of Gen X and Millennials
  • Xennials spent their childhoods outside without the need to update social media 
  • They then came into the technology boom in their 20s, and are now tech-savvy

Move over Millennials and Generation X-ers, there's some new kids on the block.

Australian Dan Woodman, associate professor of Sociology at the University of Melbourne, claims there is a new micro generation, called Xennials, who were born between 1977 and 1983.

Speaking to Mamamia, Professor Woodman said Xennials are a mix of the pessimistic generation X and the optimistic Millennials

'The idea is there's this micro or in-between generation between the Gen X group – who we think of as the depressed flannelette-shirt-wearing, grunge-listening children that came after the Baby Boomers and the Millennials – who get described as optimistic, tech savvy and maybe a little bit too sure of themselves and too confident,' Professor Woodman told the publication.

Xennials grew up in a time where landline phones were used to organise catch ups with friends, and people read the newspaper and watched the nightly news to keep up to date with current affairs.

Professor Woodman said Xennials have a unique experience when it comes to technology, enjoying their childhoods without the worry of social media posts to gain Instagram popularity.

Then in their 20s, Xennials hit the technology boom.  'Then we hit this technology revolution before we were maybe in that frazzled period of our life with kids and no time to learn anything new. We hit it where we could still adopt in a selective way the new technologies,' Professor Woodman said.

'We learned to consume media and came of age before there was Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and all these things where you still watch the evening news or read the newspaper.'

However, it's not likely that a whole micro generation experienced the same upbringing, Professor Woodman explained.

'Internal to whatever these groups are, whether it's Millennials or Xennials, there's going to be people who have very very different experiences based on whether they're a man or a woman, whether they had a lot of money or not much money as a kid,' he said. 

English leadership consultant Simon Sinek previously spoke of the 'entitled, narcissistic, self-interested, unfocused and lazy' attitudes of Millennials, claiming it's not their fault.

Touring Australia and New Zealand in March earlier in the year, Mr Sinek said millennials had been dealt 'a bad hand' with their upbringing because they had grown up in an environment where 'every child wins a prize'.

'Some of them got into honours classes, not because they deserved it, but because their parents complained,' Mr Sinek said.

'(They were) thrust into the real world and in an instant, they find out they're not special, their mums can't get them a promotion. And by the way, you can't just have it because you want it.'