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A New Breed of Ageism

Generational stereotyping can cause more problems than it solves because offering the wrong motivators to individuals sends a message that you don’t understand their needs and goals.

October 10, 2008
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Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Diversity, Workforce Planning
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HR has a long history of fighting stereotypes and generalizations, and still works hard to combat bias associated with race, gender, disability and age. As a profession, we have created policies and processes to ensure that employees have the opportunity to prove their value, regardless of any stereotype that might be attached to a demographic group to which they belong.

    However, a new trend initiated by a seemingly endless supply of authors and consultants is challenging that long tradition. What they’re peddling is called "managing by generation."

    It’s hard to find a business or HR magazine (including this one) that doesn’t contain articles featuring a generational alphabet soup, where authors make broad statements about generations X, Y, Z, baby boomers, tweeners or Millennials. These advocates provide a dizzying array of jargon and classifications in order to scare managers into thinking that they are behind the times and that they must radically change the way they hire and treat individuals from these different generations. If you are a manager or HR professional who has fallen for this ruse, it’s time to rethink your approach.

    In modern society, any attempt to group or stereotype an entire region, gender, age group or race would normally be considered silly. But thousands of managers are already buying into the premise of generational similarities without thinking the concept through. The principle of diversity, which HR champions, celebrates the concept that people of the same age but from a different race, sex, religion or economic background are not the same.

    Generational stereotypes can create huge problems. If you’re a parent, you already know that giving the same holiday gift to each of four children who are close in age will invariably result in one happy child and several angry ones. But, flying in the face of common sense, that’s what HR is being called upon to do in the workplace.

    There are several factors that make generational stereotypes inaccurate. The first is that most generational experts make their stereotypes based on the U.S. experience alone. However, anyone who has traveled extensively knows that individuals of the same age but who grew up in different countries are not the same. Other regions of the world don’t share the same timeline in population booms, and there clearly are cultural differences that affect the expectations and wants of global employees.

    Next, lumping together all those who have similar birth years but who also have dramatically different education levels and experiences is wrong. Finally, it’s important to realize that innovators, regardless of their age group, think, act and have different expectations than their peers.

    Lumping by age also ignores the fact that the needs of individual employees within a single generation are continually changing, based on life factors. For example, employees who care little about job security might suddenly care a lot when they get married, have a child or have a spouse lose their job. Ignoring life factors and shifts in motivators reduces our awareness of individual employee needs.

    Taking employees and then grouping their needs and interests into six to 10 neat "treat them this way" categories might seem like a good idea because it simplifies hiring, motivation and development. But generational stereotyping can cause more problems than it solves because offering the wrong motivators to individuals sends a message that you don’t understand their needs and goals.

    Few managers want to hear it, but the answer to the question of the best way to motivate a certain generation is that effective management requires treating every employee and every situation differently. Great managers, rather than lump people by age, instead must do the hard work of actually finding out an individual employee’s goals and motivators. That inquiry requires asking new hires to specifically list their goals, their motivators and their frustrators. It also means spending additional time during performance appraisals and career development sessions to identify the goals and aspirations of each team member. Generalization might seem easy, but unfortunately, it almost guarantees that employees will not feel like they are special. Filling the wrong needs and providing the wrong motivators almost guarantees reduced employee productivity.

    HR needs to help managers celebrate individual differences, not bury them. Classifying generational needs might seem like a harmless concept, but to me it’s dangerous. HR needs to take a firm stand against it.

Workforce Management, October 6, 2008, p. 50 -- Subscribe Now!

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