Generational DIFFERENCES in the Workplace!

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Generational differences has been a literary topic throughout history, from Antiquity (like Plato’s Republic) up to our times. However, lower life expectancy meant that fewer generations coexisted previously (Denney, McNown, Rogers, & Doubilet, 2013), with life expectancy only being 28 years in Antiquity (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013). Increased life expectancy is making the topic more pressing, since the near future will witness an unprecedented generational make-up, in that up to five different generations will work side-by-side; Matures (1925-42), Baby Boomers (1943-60) and Generation-X (1961-81), -Y (1982-2000), and -Z (2000-20) (Kulik, Ryan, Harper, & George, 2014). Of all things this demographic shift might have implications for, C&B is hitherto one of the least studied (Xavier, 2014).

Theoretical Framework

Generational research
There are five theoretical ways to explain generational differences; cohort, aging, social forces, life/career-stage and contextual. The latest literature reviews highlight that the social forces direction is the most promising for future research (Lyons & Kuron, 2014; Parry & Urwin, 2011). Hence, my focus will be on social forces and life/career-stage, given how the former is holistic and also encapsulate key aspects of the other directions.

Cohort effects. A cohort is a group of individuals that are differentiated from other groups, by shared experiences happening within a given time-frame (Laufer & Bengtson, 1974). These are thought to create a shared identity (attitudes, perceptions, preferences and values), e.g. among the Baby boomers, that differentiates them from other generations. As such, cohort research promotes the use of clear generational categories, which is problematic both theoretically and methodologically. A big challenge for cohort studies is to distinguish between true cohort effects, and the confounding influence of aging (maturation) and the contextual period effect (Lawler III, 2011). Attitudes stabilize in early adulthood (Stockard, Carpenter, & Kahle, 2014), and sampling for generational research should take that into account.

Aging effects. There is support for the case that biological and psychological developments across one’s lifetime affects attitudes and behavior, which in turn can explain differences we see between generations. Changes in mental plasticity, personality, priorities, and fluid mental ability are directly related to aging (Goldstein, 2010). As an example, we know that young adults are much more risk seeking than their older peers, as per the higher incidence of automobile accidents (Karaca-Mandic & Ridgeway, 2010). Which in part is explained by endocrinal and neurological developments (Goldstein, 2010). Further, there is an increase in self-confidence, neuroticism, and extraversion across generations (Lyons & Kuron, 2014). While some think such psychometric properties are contingent on context, psychological developments have also demonstrated stability over time, after crystalizing in early adulthood (Stockard et al., 2014). Further reinforcing the case for careful sampling.

Social forces effects. Karl Mannheim started the generational research program back in 1923 (Pilcher, 1994), but his holistic approach has not been pursued until recently (Lyons & Kuron, 2014). Mannheim’s “social forces“ explanation is that socio-cultural context, complemented by aging and cohort effects, has a formative influence on generational attitudes and behavior (Joshi, Dencker, & Franz, 2011). As such, combining four of the five. His logic is that people growing up during a certain period, integrate historical stereotypes into their social identity, and form an implicit psychological contract with their cohort (Dencker, Joshi, & Martocchio, 2008). The key difference between this and the cohort explanation, is the focus on how contextual factors cause generational differences. Cohort studies think of generations as more chronological groups than sociologically differentiated groups. Historians generally agree on some key changes rising forth in Western societies, which also falls on generational fault lines: anti-authoritarianism (political/familial/religious), equality, interconnectivity (globalization and ICT), education boom, mobility and short-termism courtesy of higher frequency of change (Cook, 2001; Davis, 2012). A possible repercussion of interconnectivity is that a “global generation” might have emerged (Edmunds & Turner, 2005). Contrarians argue that these developments are heavily moderated by cultural factors (Vincent, 2005). Nonetheless, these developments might have influenced, indirectly, different generation’s thoughts about C&B. The logic being that as the framework of society changes, different generations enter the workforce with age-contingent attitudes and preferences. It follows that my respondents presumably have developed an implicit psychological contract with their respective cohorts, as a function of micro and macro social pressures (Dencker et al., 2008; Joshi et al., 2011). Still, discrepancies between nations historical developments, makes some argue that generational group demarcations likely differ between them (Deal et al., 2012), which suggests a liability of using strict generational groups like GenX and GenY in research.

Life/career-stage effects. Some of the differences we see are most likely the effect of their current life/career stage, which in turn can be relatively homogeneous within a given generational group (Parry & Urwin, 2011). Granted, this is a contrarian argument often used to question and critique the ontology of generations. While there is overlap between life- and career-stage, they can also develop somewhat independently, in that e.g. life-stage developments can precede careerstage. An example would be that someone begets children while still an unemployed student. New graduates usually have student depth, little experience in the workforce, no children, nor are owners in the real estate market. Hence, they could be more interested in base pay, overtime work, and other extrinsic motivators. On the other hand, people in later adulthood are in the opposite situation, and likely to report the inverse of the former. However, multiple contrarian studies find that youth actually do not put as much emphasis on extrinsic motivators when choosing workplace, and rather focus on more intrinsic ones like e.g. TAD (training and development) (Lindquist, 2008; Yeaton, 2008).

Contextual period effects. Workplace culture and national characteristics appear to influence how individuals rate themselves on various workplace variables (Lyons & Kuron, 2014; Parry & Urwin, 2011). There is a known relationship between reward and job preferences (Cable & Judge, 1994), and various sociocultural dimensions create other differences as well (Chiang & Birtch, 2012). Hence, it is practical to have some level of homogeneity in one’s research sample. Geert Hofstede’s (1984) magnum opus on international differences in workrelated values, explores cultural dimensions that explain underlying differences. According to Hofstede’s masculinity/femininity spectrum, Norway is one of the most feminine countries in the world (Myers, 2012). That means that Norwegians rate competition, achievement and success lower than many other countries, and this might naturally affect how they rate various workplace variables. A Norwegian proverb reflecting its deferential culture is “janteloven”, which admonishes that “you should not think you are better than other people”. On another dimension, Norway is also somewhat more collectivistic than many other western countries (Hofstede, 1984; Myers, 2012). More, strong labor movements, protectionism, and a general skepticism of free-market capitalism has influenced Norway’s political history (Cook, 2001). American culture in particular, has nevertheless made many inroads into the Norwegian psyche through multinational companies, and its powerful entertainment industry. This might have persuaded the younger generations in Norway, who have gown-up with it, to accept different ideas on C&B. Still, the managers who determine workplace policies are usually GenX or older (Joshi et al., 2011), so support for these policies (incl. C&B) might differ between generations.

Empirical support and critics

Hitherto the empirical research on generational differences fractionally support the theories, howbeit suffering from methodological inconsistencies, lack of coordination, and often minimal theoretical grounding (Lyons & Kuron, 2014; Parry & Urwin, 2011). Nevertheless, researchers have unearthed consistent generational differences on various constructs (Beutell, 2013; Cogin, 2012; Gursoy, Chi, & Karadag, 2013; Krahn & Galambos, 2014; Lester, Standifer, Schultz, & Windsor, 2012). The aim of Lyons and Kuron’s (2014) recent literature review was to settle the score between those who have, and those who did not find support for generational differences. They concluded that present research provides sufficient reason to establish generations as a workplace variable, and that the next stage is to map-out the role of mediators and moderators. Critics argue that generations are not homogeneous enough to be placed into generational groups, and that extraneous variables explain most of the differences found (Giancola, 2008). Yet, a contemporary meta-analysis demonstrated that work attitudes exhibit stability over time (Douglas Low, Mijung, Roberts, & Rounds, 2005), and high school work interest has been used to predict occupational membership 12 years post-graduation (J.-I. C. Hansen & Dik, 2005). I do however meet this criticism, since I do not primarily use a rigid generational membership group variable in this paper, only secondarily.



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