Buzzwords like “Millennial” and “Boomer” are frequently used in workforce management discussions. Chandra Childers of IWPR, and a member of the Committee on the Consideration of Generational Issues in Workforce Management and Employment Practices, says that while these attempts at classification are natural, there’s little scientific evidence to back them up. A 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine argues that, rather than relying on overgeneralized generational categories, high road employers should actually be focusing on their real employee’s needs: as told by employees themselves.
Age and period effects, yes. But not generational effects.
What employers often mistake as generational effects, Childers explains, are actually age or period effects. An employer might observe that some younger workers are particularly interested in social media, for example. Childers emphasizes that this characterization is neither true across all younger workers, nor is it a characteristic that will necessarily follow younger workers as they age. Longitudinal (rather than cross-sectional) studies show that an individual’s beliefs and behaviors often change over the life course, rather than defining a generation throughout their lives. Period effects– experiencing an event like 9/11 or the COVID recession– affect workers regardless of age (although workers with some characteristics may be more impacted than others.)
Making hiring, retention, and benefits decisions based on generations poses negative consequences for employers.
Childers warns employers against forming policies based on generalizations: “When you narrow your focus to one particular group over another group, you miss other pools of potential talent… you are missing large swaths of workers who could really make your organization more productive.” Moreover, making hiring decisions or providing benefits based on generational categories (i.e. only recruiting “millennials” or only providing younger workers with family leave benefits) exposes employers to age discrimination litigation.
How employers can make policies which benefit all their employees and draw the best talent.
The NASEM report suggests employers should focus on the needs of their individual workers by continually collecting and analyzing internal workforce data, while avoiding policies that are exclusive to a certain age group. Childers explains how policies like increased flexibility (for work hours, telecommuting, and caregiving/family leave) benefit workers of all ages. While younger workers are more likely to have young children at home, older workers may still have caregiving responsibilities for grandchildren, spouses, and other family members. Similarly, caregiving flexibility should be equally accessible across genders. Likewise, professional development opportunities, which are often targeted to younger workers, are actually beneficial for all employees due to rapid changes in the economy and technology (for example, the shift to remote work for many white collar employees during the COVID pandemic.)
How employers collect information about their workers’ needs will depend on the organization’s characteristics, but the NASEM report suggests that these kinds of individualized processes make for much better workforce management solutions than generational stereotyping.