The Generation Myth
In this essay, I will discuss why management programs based on age groups fail to deliver result. How workers behave is important because engaging employee based on those behavioural characteristics enables workplace performance. However, engaging generational-based differences will only weaken legitimate performance improvement efforts. Porter (1996) argued that consuming resources on unnecessary services will only damage more legitimate programs (Part I, “Idea in Practice”). I believe that performance diverted by inappropriately expending resources on generational differences is ineffective because it uses finite resources poorly. The departure from focusing on individuals to generational programs is ineffective; Porter (1996) regarded this as poor strategy. The idea of strategy around generational differences based on the belief is that generational differences in age affect organizational performance.
Generational categories have date ranges, for example, Arsenault (2004) categorizes generations into age groups, such as baby boomers (born 1944-1960) and generation Xers (born 1961-1980) (p. 125). These date ranges suggest behavioural differences because of age cohort. Categorizing people by generation can lead to the belief that organizations should interact with employees differently because of generation. Arsenault (2004) argued that differences in age-related behaviours created by historical events such as wars are shared within a specific age group (generation) and people do not change their behaviours based on age (pp. 124-125). To support this notion, Arsenault (2004) related studies of Coca-Cola and coffee consumption over time to a lack of change in individual behaviours through their life-cycle (p. 126). This relationship suggested that people maintain generational behaviour regardless of age. Even though the author advocated that leaders should adjust their management styles and practices to accommodate generational difference (p. 129) correlation of beverage preference is not suggestive of generational continuity.
Managing by generation may seem intuitive, yet not all people have shared similar historical experiences. A good example of this is the combination of age and social/cultural diversity. For example, in a country that did not send large numbers of it’s population to fight in the Second World War, such as Mexico, the baby boomer would have had a very different set of ideas in their upbringing. An example of the Mexican experience would be the role of women in the work force. In Canada and the USA women were relied on to take up the male dominated jobs while the men were away in Europe fighting, which strengthened the role of women in the workforce. However, Mexico did not experience this strengthening of female roles as their contribution of 300 pilots in the Pacific did not require women to take up male dominated jobs.This conflicts with the previous hypothesis that individual in the same age categories will have similar behaviours.
Baby boomers from China were studied to determine their work motivations compared to North American baby boomers who valued stability and loyalty at work (Davis, Pawlowski, & Houston, 2006). The Chinese workers were ranked highly in wanting a “‘chance to learn new things’ and ‘freedom from pressures to conform both on and off the job’” (p. 44). Davis et al.’s (2006) study also found insignificant differences in motivations between Chinese generation Xer and baby boomer groups, suggesting similar behaviours despite generational categories. When difference did occur between groups, they could be explained by “cohort and lifecycle/career stage explanations” (p. 44) such as, needing less supervision because of experience (older person) or having more drive to build a career (younger person). The contrasts between the North American workers motivation for stability and loyalty and the Chinese workers motivation for new learning and reduced conformity demonstrates that the generational categories based on age are irrelevant.
Motivations differ within the same generation of individuals from different social and cultural backgrounds more than between different generations. It makes sense that experiences among people vary, regardless of age, which might have an impact on individual motivations. Similar to the findings in Davis et al. (2006), Wong, Gardiner, Lang, and Coulon (2008) found social and cultural factors were more significant in personality development than age group (p. 881). The study of these generational and cultural groups suggested that collective experiences have little variation in motivation among generations (Wong et al., 2008). In fact, American baby boomers were found to have less interest in their work than the Chinese baby boomers, which suggested that there are greater variations in motivation within a generation than between generations (p. 888). The contrast in thinking between age groups and social, cultural, and even life-cycle can have consequences to business if assumptions about generations continue and programs are inappropriately applied.
Assuming some level of diversity, generational differences are invalid because of social and cultural diversity in age groups, generational motivated programs are likely to produce poor results. Failure occurs because not all workers share socio-cultural similarities. Program failure would drive costs up for an organization because of hiring, employee turnover, lost human capital, and poor moral, in this case worker behaviour is not based solely on age groups. Consuming resources into programs based on age groups will not only produce poor results but will also marginalize those workers who do not share the same socio-cultural history with the rest of the organization. I believe this would ultimately reduce diversity in the worker population, increase organizational costs, and result in lower overall performance.
Arsenault, P. (2004). Validating generational differences: A legitimate diversity and leadership issue. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 25(2), 124-141. doi:10.1108/01437730410521813
Davis, J. B., Pawlowski, S. D., & Houston, A. (2006). Work commitments of baby boomers and gen-xers in the IT profession: Generational differences or myth.Journal of Computer Information Systems, 43-49.
Porter, M. E. (1996). What is strategy? In Harvard Business School Publishing,HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy [Kindle Version]. Author. Retrieved from www.amazon.ca
Statistics Canada. (2013). Immigration and ethnoculture diversity in Canada (Catalogue no. 99-010-X2011001). Retrieved from http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-010-x/99-010-x2011001-eng.cfm
Wong, M., Gardiner, E., Lang, W., & Coulon, L. (2008). Generational differences in personality and motivation: Do they exist and what are the implications for the workplace? Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(8), 878-890. Retrieved from www.emeraldinsight.com/0268-3946.htm
Brian Mendoza Dominguez