Whether it’s a conscious decision or simple dependence on our own experiences, each of us probably has been guilty of generational discrimination in the workplace at one time or another.
The people who sacrificed through The Great Depression and braved World War II looked down their noses at the Baby Boomers, the post-war generation.
The Boomers were up in arms in the 1990s when Generation X began flexing its muscle and every worker over the page of 30 probably has the same sort of issue with the members of Generation Y.
There is probably some clinical name for this like “exaggerated egocentrism” or something silly like that. But the simplest explanation is the simple fact that we all think we know what’s best.
“You can remember, if you are old enough, when older workers were the bosses and younger workers did what was asked of them, no questions asked,” says Greg Hammill, director of the Center for Human Resource Management Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. “There were definite rules as to how the boss was treated and how young workers treated older workers. No longer. Roles today are all over the place and the rules are being rewritten daily.”
Simply being older is no reason to believe you are smarter or more perceptive than younger workers. It probably never was, but older workers generally got the benefit of doubt. Now, research from the leadership development company Zenger Folkman reveals that Generation Y workers aren’t the self-centered “know-it-alls” that many believe they are. “One of the common stereotypes about the youngest generation is that they are more focused on themselves than on company objectives,” says Jack Zenger, chief executive of the leadership development firm. “To our surprise, when it came to driving for result, the Gen Y group in our study had the highest scores, followed by the Traditionalists (those born in 1945 or earlier). Boomers received the lowest scores.”
Zenge Folkman reports that Gen Y ranked higher than any generation in terms of collaboration and teamwork. It seems that the younger generation is very willing to collaborate with those who are more experienced in the workplace. Gen Y also very strong in innovation and self-development, further countering the know-it-all stereotype.
“It appears we can all relax,” Zenger says. “Our fears and stereotypes about this younger generation are largely unfounded, and while they have a lot to learn from us, we also have much to learn from them.”
Zenger is showing his optimism. The reality is that generational discrimination doesn’t disappear just because someone thinks it’s a good idea that it should. Instead, discrimination will subside as individuals set aside their discrimination person by person. For some it will be easy: They will recognize the advantages and willingly adopt new attitudes in the way they treat and interact with younger workers.
But it also promises to be a challenge for some older workers, who find it hard to break the stereotypes they have lived with their whole life or are simply too blind to see.