Workforce Demographics: Does A Focus On Group Differences Have Value?

By Brittany Head, PhD - June 11, 2019

An entire genre of commentary is devoted to the idea that generational differences define employee values and expectations. For the past decade, these observations have focused on Millennials, and how they differ from previous generations in their attitudes towards work. Changes in workforce demographics make this type of analysis attractive to HR and others who are seeking ways to more actively engage their employees.

But are assumptions of this sort valid or accurate? My research indicates otherwise. In terms of the leadership characteristics they value, there are fewer differences between age cohorts than there are similarities. As demographic shifts transform the global workforce, recognizing what employees of all cohorts most value is more important than ever, and is the focus of this article. (If you’d rather watch than read, click on the video above).

Workforce Demographics: Age Cohorts In The Current Labor Pool

Today’s U.S. workforce is made up of five main generational groups and one subgroup:

  • Traditionals—Born prior to 1955, these workers are all now older than the traditional retirement age of 65, but many remain in the workforce. This generation was shaped by World War II, the Space Race, and advances such as the development of antibiotics.
  • Baby Boomers—Made up of workers born between 1955 and 1963, this cohort was influenced by the era of turbulent social change in which they grew up, which included the civil rights and feminist movements.
  • Generation X—Born between 1964 and 1975, these workers were the original latchkey kids, most of whom grew up in households where both parents worked. This group was less socially active in youth than their older peers, the Baby Boomers.
  • Generation Y—Born between 1976 and 1996, this group includes the subgroup I call Xennials, older millennials born between 1976 and 1985. These workers are digital natives; the internet has been a part of their lives ever since they entered the workforce and their experience has been profoundly shaped by digital technology.
  • Generation Z—Composed of young people born in 1997 or later who have just begun to join the workforce, these workers have grown up in a world with a great deal of disruption. They have more awareness of diversity and have never known a time when there was no internet; their life experience is one that makes little distinction between the personal and the public.

Each of these age cohorts share historical experiences and grew up in social milieus that were broadly similar; this shared background has, to some extent, molded their value preferences and risk tolerance. It’s important to note, however, that not all members of any of the groups identify more strongly with members of their own cohort than with members of other age groups. For example, many people born in the early 1960s feel more affinity with Generation X than with Baby Boomers.

These shared formative experiences are interesting—but do they translate into significant differences in what members of these different cohorts want in their work experience? I set up a study to find out.

A good employee experience means employees of all generations are engaged. Learn how to improve your company’s experience with our free guide, The Employee Experience Playbook.

How much do the changes in workforce demographics affect engagement?

The generationally diverse workplace is not going away; people are working longer because they’re living longer, and for financial reasons. With more generational diversity in the workforce, it’s important to understand how accurate assumptions about the differences between the generations truly are.

I designed a survey to test the idea that there are significant differences between the generations—specifically to determine if different generations need different leadership styles to foster engagement. Survey participants were first asked to pick the generational description that they most identified with, and were asked questions about leadership tailored to their cohort to see if they held true for the individual. Then participants completed an engagement measure to determine if the type of leadership they identified as most desirable actually resulted in engagement.

The results showed little difference in preferences between age cohorts. Participants agreed with the identifying characteristics for their generation 53% of the time, but the same leadership competencies were valued across all groups:

  1. Leading employees—effectively managing through delegation of tasks and developing talent
  2. Participative management—fostering communication and participation in others by using group listening skills
  3. Resourcefulness—using expertise and knowledge of the organization in solving problems and being seen as competent and optimistic
  4. Good at change management—ability to picture and anticipate challenges, looking forward, and being facilitative of changes
  5. Doing whatever it takes—appearing dedicated, determined, dependable, persevering through different challenges, and being willing to get their own hands dirty by pitching in where needed
  6. Building and mending relationships—showing caring and understanding for others, inclusive, encouraging cooperation and teamwork, being loyal and willing to negotiate
  7. Openness and appreciation—consistent and fair, equitable, down-to-earth, and an advocate for employees

Essentially, what every generational group surveyed wanted in leadership was the same. Regardless of the priority they placed on specific preferences, the extent to which employees were engaged was driven more by whether or not they had leadership with these competencies. The research showed that if some semblance of these attributes was present, it didn’t matter much if they were tailored to a specific generational cohort.

Ultimately, my research showed this:

An engaged workforce relies on knowing your people on an individual basis. Assumptions based on generational cohorts are not very useful, and can result in weak initiatives based on misunderstandings about what is actually most important to employees.

Classifying people based on these assumptions can be off-putting; no one likes to be told who they are based on a pop-culture theory.

Within each of the generational cohorts active in the current workforce, there is a wide divergence of interests, preferred ways of working, and levels of ambition. To truly understand what is important to employees, we have to ask—not paint with a broad brush based on their age or their cohort. (Tweet this!)

Want to know what matters most to all your employees?

At Perceptyx, our goal is to help you know your people, with customized surveys designed to uncover the insights you need to address your biggest business challenges. Get in touch and let us show you how the Perceptyx platform, paired with surveys tailored to your strategic goals, can help you truly get to know your employees.

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