It often seems as though making generalizations about people to group them by generation is simply detrimental to society. Generational theory provides a way for marketers to target consumers. It offers a way for economists to evaluate trends. And it opens up avenues for young and old to point fingers at one another and cast blame. It might seem that talking about generations in the workplace would just feeds the Us vs. Them mentality. So what’s the big deal about generational difference?
The truth is, taking the time and effort to help employees understand what makes each generation tick can actually serve as a unifying force. Managing generational difference can accelerate team performance, enhance work quality, and minimize employee turnover.
Managers can use what makes people different to build stronger teams. However, the idea that people of one generation are no different from those in another precludes this unifying effect. Consequently, the Us vs. Them mindset prevails, preventing project teams from achieving peak performance.
The Science of Generational Difference
Clearly, cultures change over time, and those changes affect people. Thus, we have generational differences. Social scientists determine how the events, trends, and other cultural phenomena people experience during their formative years (birth to age 18) help shape them. They use this information to identify people’s characteristics and core values and determine when one generation ends, and another begins.
As author and speaker Chuck Underwood explains, our core values continue to influence decisions, lifestyle preferences, and even career choices throughout our lives.
Knowing what shapes people is paramount to understanding what makes them tick.Ambra Watkins – Escape from Dark Places
History & Predicting Trends
William Strauss and Neil Howe were pioneers in generational theory. When conducting research for a compilation of biographical sketches in the 1980s, the two men discovered a recurring generation cycle in American history. This discovery evolved into the Strauss-Howe generational theory which holds that throughout history there were distinct people groups with shared characteristics and values. They first explained the theory in The Fourth Turning, a book that details how these historical cycles work and how social scientists can use them to predict future impacts. Strauss and Howe founded LifeCourse Associates, a consulting company that continues to use historical, generational data to help managers and marketers predict national trends.
Psychology & Emerging Adulthood
While Strauss and Howe apply an historical perspective to generational difference, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett looks at it as a developmental psychologist. Arnett published his first theory in American Psychologist in 2000, in which he presents emerging adulthood as a new phase of life. Based largely on qualitative data, the theory demonstrates that the transition into adulthood is no longer a brief rite of passage. The time between adolescence and adulthood can now last more than ten years, from age 18 to age 29. That is how long young people are generally taking to explore their identities and start adulting.
The growing body of knowledge regarding emerging adulthood offers a better understanding of what young people are experiencing and why. Emerging adulthood is delaying key life events—launching from the family home, for example; marrying and having children; seeking a post-secondary education; and even finding gainful employment. The fact that young people are growing up more slowly is reshaping the way businesses recruit, hire, and retain young talent.
Generational Difference & Work Values
Jean M. Twenge is also a professor of psychology. Unlike Arnett, however, she primarily uses quantitative data to conduct research on generational difference. And she does not use one-time studies; instead, she tracks standardized psychological test scores over decades, which effectively eliminates the age factor.
Twenge listens to what young people have to say then determines how that is different from what people said 10, 20, or 30 years ago. She examines generational differences in work values over time. Twenge uses this information to advise leaders when to adapt management strategies for a new generation.
The Change Factor
The study of generational difference is still in its infancy, so many of the benefits are yet to be revealed. One benefit I foresee is related to people’s ability to flex in the midst of change. As the workforce evolves, leaders are finding new ways to adapt to the accelerating rate of change; they are adopting more agile methods of delivering projects. But shouldn’t they also be planning how to make people more agile? An understanding of generational difference provides managers with a means of taking what makes people different and using it to build more cohesive, flexible teams.
It is necessary and beneficial to provide the workforce with tools that enable better interaction and communication across generations. Agility believes that leaders and managers need to be aware of how generational difference affects job performance. With this knowledge, they can build teams that more readily flex and react as businesses respond to today’s highly fluctuating markets and trends.
Generational difference is big deal because, when well-managed, it is a unifying force that can enable project teams and key stakeholders to maximize performance.