Focusing on generational divides? Not so fast

Employers and HR leaders looking to discern employee needs by using generational labels–such as “baby boomer” or “millennial”–could be falling into a trap, according to a new research report.

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The report, Are Generational Categories Meaningful Distinctions for Workforce Management? from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine,  found that such a strategy “cannot adequately inform” workforce-management decisions.

“Much of the research that’s been done to date on the differences between ‘Gen Z’ or ‘boomers’ in the workplace has serious limitations and can mislead employers about what their workers actually need,” explains Nancy Tippins, principal at the Nancy Tippins Group and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Our report explains how researchers could improve future studies on how age and societal change affect an individual’s values and behavior, and make their results more useful for informing management decisions.”

So what does the organization recommend? Mainly, employers and HR should focus on individual work needs. The report says “varied values and behaviors” among workers are more likely to reflect differences in their ages, career stages, job experiences and general changes in society and work conditions, rather than a specific generation.

Related: Here’s why millennials aren’t that different

According to the report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, broad factors that affect workplaces–globalization, increased age diversity among workers, fast-paced technological innovation, more team-based work–have created demand for new employment practices and management techniques to help companies and employees adapt.

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The committee conducting the research also found that rigorous studies have shown that individuals from the same generation are just as likely to be different from one another as they are from individuals born in other generations.

For example, studies that have found millennials are less concerned with career advancement than with achieving work/life balance can be better explained by age differences or current work conditions. Other research has shown that the centrality of one’s career declines until age 65, regardless of generation. Since the 1990s, Americans generally have tended to place greater importance on jobs that provide security, high income and opportunities for advancement–all of which have become more difficult for workers to attain.

See also: How ‘OK, boomer’ can provide a teachable moment

While allowing that the concept of generations or generational differences can be useful in some instances, the report warns it can also lead to “workplace prejudice, bias and stereotyping.”

The report recommends employers deploy a thorough assessment of their own work environments, job requirements and human capital to shape their practices and policies, and have processes in place to regularly re-evaluate employment practices such as recruiting, training, diversity and inclusion, and retention.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at