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Generational differences: Don't believe the hype

Treat people as individuals rather than stereotyping entire generations

By Brian Kreissl

I find all the talk about generational differences in the workplace a little off putting and even a bit offensive. While it’s fascinating how the social, political, economic, technological and cultural conditions prevalent during any one era shape and influence individuals as they grow and come of age, have people really changed all that much over the past 50 years?

Notwithstanding the talk about how technology supposedly revolutionized the way people think and multitask, human beings aren’t hardwired any differently today than they were in the 1960s.

Therefore, I don’t believe the hype in certain circles about generation Y supposedly being “superior” to previous generations — just because they can multitask and use the latest gadgets. They aren’t necessarily better employees, and I think it’s a bit dangerous when employers try to bend over backwards to accommodate them based on that premise.

Conversely, I don’t believe the naysayers who claim gen-Y employees are spoiled, lack respect, have short attention spans, don’t communicate well and constantly need their egos stroked. We wouldn’t make such sweeping generalizations about a race, religion or a nationality, so why do we think it’s acceptable to make them about a generation?

Didn’t we all have somewhat idealistic views of how the workplace should work when we were graduating and coming of age? Didn’t we want the workforce to accommodate our needs rather than the other way around? The difference today is organizations have started listening to what their younger employees are asking for.

As a gen-Xer, I remember the stereotypes back in the 1990s about us being cynical slackers living in our parents’ basements. How many people fret about generation X now? Not too many — and those who do are Xers like myself who feel more than a little jealous about the opportunities being made available to gen-Yers.

That changed a bit with the recession, yet I no longer hear that popular 1990s refrain: “Stop complaining. Don’t you realize how lucky you are to have a job?”

We care about things like employee engagement, and that’s a good thing, but my generation sometimes feels a bit left out hearing about this obsession with attracting, hiring, retaining and promoting generation Y.

We also need to think more logically about the demographics surrounding the baby boom generation and the accompanying hand-wringing about needing to groom generation Y employees to fill their shoes. To suggest boomers are all about to retire en masse is nonsense. The youngest boomers were born around 1964. That makes them about 47 — hardly an age associated with retirement.

With the end of mandatory retirement, the introduction of phased retirement, fewer defined benefit pension plans, losses in the value of many people’s investment portfolios, offshoring, automation and increasing longevity, my feeling is we won’t see huge talent shortages in the near future. That’s not to say individual organizations won’t have demographic challenges, or it isn’t prudent to plan for the future, but the idea a huge chunk of the workforce is set to retire within the next couple of years just doesn’t make sense.

Stereotypes about boomers not being comfortable with technology also seem unfair. These people were in the workforce during the technology revolution of the 1990s. They had to learn and adapt as technology advanced. The vast majority of them are comfortable with computers and other electronic gadgets.

I do concede stereotypes surrounding the different generations sometimes seem to have at least a grain of truth to them. We’re all products of our environments, and it’s interesting how that can lead to certain identifiable characteristics which are often present in many people of the same age group.

I sometimes find my self nodding in agreement with some of the things they say about my generation, but that doesn’t mean such stereotypes are always true, or that we should base organizational policies around such perceived characteristics.

I’d hate to think older people are being discriminated against because organizations are looking to fast-track gen-Y employees when generation X or even boomer employees who’ve been with the organization longer are perfectly capable of taking on additional responsibilities. Conversely, it’s wrong to write off a younger employee because her dress sense or preferred means of communication differ from organizational norms.

Above all, we’ve got to treat people as individuals and avoid stereotyping entire generations. We can all learn from each other, but let’s stop assuming everyone within a certain demographic group is going to act the same way or want the same things.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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