Does generational membership matter for workplace behavior?

According to one new study (“Generational Differences in Workplace Behavior,” gated here), not so much:

John Bret Becton, Harvell Jack Walker & Allison Jones-Farmer
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, forthcoming

Popular stereotypes suggest that generational differences among workers present challenges for workplace managers. However, existing empirical research provides mixed evidence for generational differences in important values and attitudes. The current study extends generational effects research by examining differences in actual workplace behaviors. Drawing from commonly held generational stereotypes, the authors hypothesized that Baby Boomers would exhibit (Hypothesis 1) fewer job mobility behaviors and (Hypothesis 2) more instances of compliance-related behaviors in comparison with both GenXers and Millennials, while (Hypothesis 3) GenXers would be less likely to work overtime in comparison with Baby Boomers and Millennials. A sample of 8,040 applicants at two organizations was used to test these predictions. Results provided support for Hypothesis 1 and Hypothesis 3 and partial support for Hypothesis 2, but the effect sizes for these relationships were small. It appears the effects of generational membership on workplace behavior are not as strong as suggested by commonly held stereotypes. Implications for future research and practice are discussed.

The pointer is from the ever-excellent Kevin Lewis.  Here is a Pacific Standard summary of the same.


This has significant macro implications. If Gen X is less interested in trading time for money and they're not as hyperconsumers as Boomers, as the Boomers retire and Gen Xers take over, we'll need to expand the monetary base to avoid deflation.

Generational analysis has long been popular, but in reality it's weak tea as a way to explain human behavior compared to the more controversial identity categories such as sex, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

Read much?

Yeah, I read Howe and Strauss's original article in The Atlantic decades ago. It was memorably unpersuasive. I particularly enjoyed their lists of representative members of each of their 13 generations: e.g., (to make up some): Ty Cobb, Eleanor Roosevelt, W.C. Fields, and Douglas MacArthur.

You make no sense

You really remember the persuasiveness of some article you read in the Atlantic decades ago? I'm impressed.

It was an ambitious article that tried to explain much about Americans so I read it closely and considered its examples.

Yes, because if I had been born three years earlier, I would have been an entirely different person.

There are still measurable differences in the productivity of workers by generation. Productivity vs age charts a ∩ shape. High productivity workers have the comparative advantage in "doing work", whereas lower productivity workers have comparative advantage is being "lazy but clever", so the workload shifts onto the high productivity generation (even if that work isn't rewarded by differential compensation). Cases vary in severity. If transaction costs are very low, firms will find the highest productivity workers and have a relatively mono-generational workforce. If transaction costs are high then the older generation can leverage seniority into a separate and better paying positions. But even in relative egalitarian workplaces, divided generations may form symbolic alliances. Corporations and governments use bonding techniques to resist these tendencies, so it may not show up in the data.

How do we control for age with this stuff?

Gen X are at peak family starting age (as well as being stereotyped as more controlling parents than Mils or Boomers) and that would affect their overtime.

Likewise, Boomers are more likely to be established, as they're old and were able to establish themselves in lower competition times, so low job shifting (except for the folk who shuffle from one highly paid sinecure to another).

So, okay, generations do not matter so much compared to other factors. But if you are attempting to build or redesign a work-force from scratch, does it matter? For example, it might be tough to sell the Big 4 on "hire middle-aged Gen Xers because they might work lots of over-time, too." If I am trying to establish that as a work-place norm, I might prefer to hire Baby Boomers or Millenials and then drag the Gen Xrs to the cubicle-farm.

Since firms are organic structures, it seems that this might have dramatic implications for the growth in a firm's behavorial set over time.

Bah. Why on earth would we let facts get in the way of a good narrative? It's only going to obscure what we really want - a good story that makes sense of the world in a way that pleases us.

Comments for this post are closed