Generational labels are everywhere in the news. In addition, we have a strong historical trend in the U.S. where each generation looks down on the generation that follows and scoffs at their habits and trends. Even now, Gen Zers are starting to say things about kids these days – shaking their heads that 10-year-olds that have iPhones. It’s human nature to look down on the next generation, but the stereotypes assigned to groups of people are not statistically accurate.

Right or wrong, everyone carries some stereotypes. Anytime there is a generational label, there are stereotypes, including:

  • Millennials all won trophies and got constant recognition
  • Baby boomers don't understand technology because they didn't grow up with it
  • Gen Xers are independent and don’t like to be micro-managed

Those stereotypes are not actually backed by research. Most stereotypes are anecdotal and not true across generations. In fact, stereotypes are not true for one generation, they're true across generations based on the developmental stage of a group of people born at the same time. 

In a recent Workforce Webinar, Caitlin Faas, developmental psychology professor at Mount St. Mary’s University and Laura Olert, executive career coach & coaching team lead at RiseSmart discussed Navigating Generations in the Workplace. You can view the webinar in its entirety here.

During the webinar, Caitlin and Laura offered tips to help professionals to start a shift in thinking and to raise awareness about some of the generational differences or stereotypes that impact the workplace culture and human capital management decisions.

Let’s begin by defining the generational terms that are most commonly used:

  1. Silent generation:  Age: 70s to 80s. This group experienced World War II, the Korean War, and the Great Depression. We characterize them as a group that had hard times growing up, but then times of prosperity.
  2. Baby boomers:  Age: 55 plus. They experienced the Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. This group was promised the American dream.
  3. Generation X: 40-year-olds. They experienced the end of the Cold War. Family dynamics changed for this generation. There were more single parents and latch-key double income families. The United States began losing status as they grew up.
  4. Millennials: 20 to 30-year-olds. They're one of the first generations to experience a child-focused world, 911, and terrorist attacks along with a period of economic expansion.
  5. Gen Z: New college grads now entering the workforce. They experienced the recession of 2008. They are tech savvy and characterize themselves as more inclusive.

Developmental stages and generational stereotypes

While we talk about “generations”, the characteristics of people in those generations are often more akin to the developmental stage of the age group. For instance, the group of people who are 18 to 25-years old are in emerging adulthood. Even though it was a different year, baby boomers also went through the developmental stage of emerging adulthood. The stereotypes we have about a generation today will change tomorrow, based on the age and developmental stage of the people who populate the group.

Here are four developmental stages developed by Donald Super – commonly called Super’s theory:

  1. Exploration: 15-24 years old – trying things out, experiencing change.
  2. Establishment: 25-44 years old -- focused on skill building and stabilizing the work experience.
  3. Maintenance: 54-64 years old – searching for that last full-time gig.
  4. Preparing for next steps: 65+ years old – retirement.

From the lens of developmental stages, we can start to let go of generational stereotypes. For instance, the millennial generation is known for frequent job hopping. The research actually shows that the millennial generation is not job hopping any more than past generations. If we look at the developmental stage, it's pretty common to experience a wide variety of jobs during exploration and the early stages of establishment. In fact, baby boomers were also experiencing different jobs at that developmental stage. It's just harder to recall when we're thinking about decades past.

Generational Milestones

The milestones we experience in life are also tied to developmental stages -- graduation, marriage, children, and retirement. In the last 50 years, the average age in order of almost every milestone has changed dramatically, influencing generations and their characteristics in a variety of ways. For instance, retirement has changed dramatically and is currently impacting the baby boomer generation and the organizations where they continue to work. Sometimes there's a real challenge for mature workers to convince a potential employer that they will contribute just like they did when they were 30 years old and overcoming the assumption that they're just treading water until retirement. 

Related content: 5 Reasons Baby Boomers Strengthen Your Team

According to US News and World Report, working Americans expect to retire at 66. However, what those later years look like for your employees can be very, very different and very diverse. Some people want to continue in that traditional full-time role for as long as they possibly can, while others are looking for a more phased approach. Retirement is no longer characterized by the gold watch, shake hands, nice party, and off you ride into the sunset. The new retirement requires creative approaches by organizations faced with a growing mature workforce.

Overcoming generational biases

We all have generational biases. It’s human nature. Overcoming and letting go of biases is key to establishing an inclusive and diverse work environment. Here is a three-step plan for moving your organization away from generational prejudice and toward engagement for all team members.

Step one: To begin letting go of those biases, make a list of all of these stereotypes that you've heard about a particular generation. Write down the good and the bad of the assumptions you’ve heard people make about the generation.
Next, take a step back and look at that list and become aware of your biases.

Step two: Assess your company culture bias. Do you have diversity amongst the generations? If a boomer interviewee came into your organization, would they feel like they belong, or would they feel unwelcome and judged. Think about ways to create a welcoming environment for all generations.

Step three: Focus on work style. Start shifting your focus from the assumptions you’ve made in the past. Move away from assuming that the millennial job candidate doesn't work very hard, or that the boomer’s not going to last very long. And, of course, there's always the technological stereotypes that are out there. Don't assume someone has a certain level of technological skill based on their age, instead you want to focus on skills that are necessary for the job and what you really need for that person to be successful. 

Next steps to avoiding ageism and generational bias in the workplace

Now that you have knowledge about different generations, what can you do next?

The first thing to do is to question when you read or hear a statement about a generation. Stop and ask yourself, is this actually true? A lot of the headlines you might see that talk about generational differences are designed to get us to click. It sounds really interesting. If you dig a little deeper, you may mind that the article is making a conclusion about generations based on a survey of a small or a specific group of people. You might read something like, ''We surveyed 100 of our readers to find out about what they think about generations.'' Stop and think, is that 100 people representative of your organization, or was it just the people that happen to open that email that day and followed through on the survey and a gift card.

The next step is thinking about your employees in different career stages and generational cohorts. It can be easy to judge somebody who's 25. Instead, think back and remember what you were doing when you were 25 and consider some of your goals at the time. If you're ever interested in the statistics or more information, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does a great job of following along with trends in the workplace in the U.S.

And finally, really connect with somebody you may have previously dismissed. Has there been someone that you have said, "Oh, they're in a different generation, they don't understand what I'm going through," or, "I don't understand what they're going through?" Is there someone you can reach out to in your workplace to gain a greater understanding of individual goals and desires? No matter what your pre-conceived notions, building a workplace of inclusivity and diversity begins with getting to know individuals. Who will you reach out to today?

During the webinar, we discuss generational differences in more detail as well as some examples of individuals and organizations who have been challenged by generational bias and ageism. To hear more, watch the webinar here.