The Generation Gap: More Myth Than Reality

Article excerpt

Policy makers and journalists in this country frequently comment that an aging society may bring with it a growing age polarization, as the young are asked to make sacrifices for a rapidly growing population of elderly citizens. The issue is often posed in terms of generational conflict, reminiscent of the 1960s when a "generation gap" was first observed, between college age students and their parents, and became part of our popular culture.

According to generational consultants, today's conflict often will occur in the workplace, where, for the first time in our history, we have four diverse generations being asked to work together. Now, unlike in the 1960s, the conflicts may be more myth than reality, as a growing body of independent research and expert opinion shows that concerns about a generation gap have been overstated and, surprisingly, the theory behind it has some gaps in logic that raise serious questions about its value. This article reviews that work to provide perspective on an issue that seldom receives balanced coverage and to make a case that challenges the importance of the generational gap as an HR issue.

Consultants expect generational conflicts in today's workplace, where, for the first time in our history, four diverse generations are being asked to work together. HR professionals who devote resources to this issue risk shortchanging efforts to deal with the radical and unstoppable changes in the workforce for which few employers are fully prepared. According to some experts, our workforce is becoming smaller and less sufficiently skilled, increasingly global, highly virtual, autonomous and empowered, and vastly diverse (Hewitt Associates, 2005).

Generational Premise

The "generational" school of thought maintains that values are imprinted for life by defining historical events that occur as people mature into adulthood. For example, the generation that grew up during the Great Depression is said to be particularly thrifty because its members experienced hard economic times. Because of the power and influence of these shared events, each generation develops a unique set of beliefs and attitudes to guide its members' behavior.

Generational advocates typically place people, by birth date, into one of four generations, each with an assigned peer personality, as shown in one well-known typology (Strauss & Howe, 1991):

1. Silent (1925 to 1942): Adaptive

2. Baby Boomer (1943-1960): Idealist

3. Generation X (1961-1981): Reactive

4. Generation Y or Millennials (1982-Present): Civic

Research and expert opinion do not fully support the generational premise. For example, two Duke University sociologists have found that the three assumptions behind the premise are not always supported by a body of research (Hughes & O'Rand, 2005):

1. Research supports the assumption that people are particularly impressionable early in life.

2. Research shows that some core personality characteristics are set for life, but also that people change their beliefs and attitudes based on later life experiences.

3. Research does not support the assumption that all members of a generation experience the same early events in the same way, as race, ethnicity, gender, and social class also color our life experiences.

Generational advocate Claire Raines admits this weakness, in stating that such factors are "every bit as important, probably more important, than generational differences in shaping our perspectives" (Raines, 2005).

Following are other findings concerning the generation premise:

1. When a noted sociologist questioned the importance of generational analysis for understanding social change in a major professional journal, colleagues agreed (Alwin, 2002; Bengtson, 2003).

2. When social scientists attempted to verify the central thesis of a well-known book, Bowling Alone, based on the generational approach, they found no support for a claimed decline in volunteer behavior from the Silent to the Baby Boomer generation (Rotolo & Wilson 2004). …