PEOPLE MANAGEMENT : Myth-busting Gen Y – Generational differences at work

It’s media and marketing staple – Gen Y (aka Gen Why) is made up of arrogant upstarts who expect it all, don’t want to work hard or persevere and are generally pretty irritating in the workplace.
According to market researchers, Baby Boomers are those born post-war to the early 1960s, Generation X includes those born up until the late 1970s to early 1980s, followed by Generation Y. Gen Y are coming of age and entering the workforce in increasing numbers. Anecdotes abound about the challenges of working with them, be it as co-worker or manager.
Research by AUT’s associate professor Keith Macky looked at the dynamic of different generations in the workplace and found some surprising results: surprising in that the study debunks many of the popular Gen Y workplace myths.
He challenges an increasing reference in the popular management press to the notions that there are clearly defined and identifiable generations at work (Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y, among others) with different world views, work ethics and workplace expectations, derived from different major life experiences in their formative years (for example, wars, major technological developments and social movements), and who therefore require different management techniques.
“Much is asserted but little evidence is presented. And those who are most vocal on the differences between the generations are those with something to sell – recruitment consultants, management gurus, authors,” Macky says.
The study, with Peter Boxall professor, human resources at the University of Auckland, included nationwide telephone survey of more than 1000 people in full- and part-time work. They measured range of work experiences and attitudes – including job satisfaction, organisational commitment, empowerment, stress, trust in management and work-life balance – but found that differences could not be attributed to generational cohorts.
As Macky and his colleagues report:
“In contrast to popular belief, Generation Y workers are not much different than Baby Boomers or Generation X. We did find minuscule difference in the job fatigue ratings and stress, with Generation Y reporting more tiredness on the job and job-related stress. But that could be due to their busy after-hours lifestyle and having fewer coping mechanisms than older workers.”
He argues that the differences we see in people’s work attitudes and outcomes are more likely to relate to differences in their length of experience and career stage, rather than specific generational effects.
“Gen Y employees are obviously the youngest in the workplace, meaning they are unlikely to be at senior career level. As the newcomers, they are likely to fill contract or part-time roles which often come with less pay and lower job security. It also means they are less likely to join unions which can place them more at risk of management exploitation,” says Macky, explaining that these factors could well explain any perceived generational differences.
Macky says “a lucrative marketing business” has sprung up around the idea of generations behaving differently at work.
Aside from general statements that they think and behave differently from the other generations, it has, for example, been asserted that “the number one reason Generation Y leaves their jobs is that they dislike their boss”, that “used to immediate gratification, Generation Y comes to the workplace with unrealistic expectations”, and that “they have been left disillusioned with the materialism they have enjoyed and boredom remains big problem for them”. They are also seen as placing higher value on the opportunity to build trust-based relationships, the potential to work flexibly, and career development over steady employment.
Macky says “a lucrative marketing business” has sprung up around the idea of generations behaving differently at work. “The people most vocal on the generational myth are management ‘gurus’ who have written popular books on the topic. They are in the business of making problems and creating solutions for them. They are the ones calling Generation Y problematic,” he says.
He says these messages are “repeated ad nauseam in the media, that’s how myths are created”.
“If anything, it may be Generation X that is most different from the other two generational cohorts with lower experiences of being provided with important company information, lower levels of job-related knowledge and training opportunities, and lower commitment and trust in management average scores,” Macky says.
Perhaps X is the neglected generation, neither attracting the attention the Baby Boomers get from their impending mass exodus from the labour force nor that which Y obtains as the new entrants, he says.
Macky has 25-year career in academic and business consulting and is an expert in human resource management and business research methods. Together with Dianne Gardner from Massey University and Stewart Forsyth from FX Consultants, he is guest editor of special edition of the Journal of Managerial Psychology on generational differences at work.

Some of the significant sociocultural events for the three identified generations:

Baby Boomers: 46 to 67 year-olds
Threat of nuclear war
Hippies and flower power
Drugs culture
Civil rights
Free tertiary education

Gen X: 27 to 45 year-olds
PC computers
Crash of 1987
Market economies
Loss of job security
Fall of communism

Gen Y: 13 to 26 year-olds
Global warming
Islamic radicalism
Corporate greed
Full employment
Student loans

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