Baby boomers are the "me" generation, hippies who sold out and became yuppies. Generation Xers are faux-bohemian slackers who simultaneously reject labels and maintain an unhealthy obsession with them. Millennials are entitled, tech-addicted whiners. Gen Z will probably be millennials on steroids. And the silent generation is just old and irrelevant.
Alternately, the baby boomers have spent their lives pushing hard for massive gains in equality and civil rights. Gen Xers are tech innovators and cultural omnivores who continue to radically reinvent Silicon Valley and Hollywood. Despite being hamstrung by economic problems, the progressive millennials are driving major changes in both corporate culture and entrepreneurship.
We're still learning about generation Z, but the research suggests that they tend to be independent, goal-oriented and, interestingly, more conservative than the millennials. And the silent generation is incredibly rich in life experience, having grown up during the crucibles of the Great Depression and World War II.
Depending on how you choose to look at the world, any of the generational descriptions above might be "true." But if you were to ask random members of each respective generation if those descriptions—negative and positive—applied to them personally, many of them would probably balk at the characterizations or even outright disagree with them.
That's because these categories, which are all about generalizations and probabilities, aren't great predictors of individual behavior and preferences. Not every boomer is Bob Dylan (who's actually from the silent generation), not every gen Xer is Steve Albini (who is, in fact, a late boomer), and not every millennial is Beyoncé (arguably among the last of the gen Xers). Nor are the generations particularly scientific: Ask people who were born in 1982 or 1998 which generation they belong to, and you're as likely to get a shrug as a response with any kind of certainty.
There is a danger, then, in "constantly trying to put people in these little boxes we think they should be put in based on when they arrived on the Earth," as Allyson Krichman, senior director of product sales at Rymax Marketing Services, put it. "I think when we do that, we put them in this subset that may not show the true employee and person they actually are."
The American workforce now comprises all five of these generations in substantial numbers, spanning an age gap of nearly 60 years. If they're going to work together productively, the people who lead organizations should understand the implications of broad generational trends, while also being mindful of universal traits and common humanity.
THE GENERATION GAP
This wasn't supposed to happen. A decade ago, talk of the coming "war for talent" was all the rage in the HR departments of the largest organizations (and the trade publications that wrote about them). The silent generation and baby boomers were supposedly going to retire en masse, and the less numerous gen Xers and inexperienced millennials would spend the next several years struggling to replace them.
It didn't quite play out that way. Some of the reasons for that were positive: people living longer and healthier lives, for instance, and more workers finding fulfillment in a second, third or even fourth career. Others—such as the Great Recession that started in 2008, along with historically low rates of personal savings and investment before and since—were not. The combination of these and other factors led to more members of the older generations sticking around longer than most experts would have predicted.
So instead of two dominant generations in the workforce today, there are three: boomers, Xers and millennials. The silent and Z generations—now exiting and entering the working world, respectively—are at the margins, but still number in the millions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this situation has created resentments all around and even at times led to a sense of a "power struggle" among the generations instead of a feeling that we're all in this together. And, of course, that tends to bring about negative impressions and stereotypes of the people outside of one's own group.
That's too bad, because even accounting for significant gaps in age, people tend to be more alike than different when it comes to the way they work. That's what Allan Schweyer, chief academic advisor of the Incentive Research Foundation, found when doing research for the "Generations in the Workforce & Marketplace: Preferences in Rewards, Recognition & Incentives" white paper.
"We conducted extensive surveys to find out what was different about people among the generations," he said. "Most of what we found were similarities—what you might call 'human universals'—in terms of what motivates people. These included things like autonomy and having control over what you do at work, the need to learn and get better at things, the need to have purpose and meaning, the need for recognition and appreciation."
With all that in mind, let's clear up some of the common misperceptions people have about generations, and in particular the supposed differences among them.
GENERATIONAL MYTH BUSTING
Boomers didn't have much of a choice
The knock on baby boomers is that they're insatiably greedy and vain, unwilling to cede power or the spotlight. That's why they've refused to retire and give up the cushy jobs at the top.
But around a decade ago, as the oldest of them were approaching the "traditional" retirement age, the values of both their homes and investment portfolios dropped significantly, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. That turn of events understandably didn't give them much confidence in a financially stable future. As the economy recovered slowly, they remained shaken by the experience for a long time—even, many of them might admit, through the present day.
Gen X is not a 'small' generation
It's said that gen X doesn't have the same level of clout as boomers and millennials, which have 70 to 80 million people apiece, because it doesn't have the numbers. It's the so-called "small" generation squeezed in between two big ones. In the United States, though, there are no small generations.
"They're all big," Schweyer said. "They're all millions and millions of people."
In fact, generation X numbers 60 to 65 million people, which is comparable to the entire population of the United Kingdom. And they're all at prime working ages right now.
Millennials are not (especially) spoiled and entitled
Millennials are often criticized for expecting too much for too little, and critics point to their upbringing—characterized by "helicopter parents" and an everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality—as the reason for that. There might be some truth to those complaints (and if there is, it's also worth noting that the millennials didn't create that environment), but according to Schweyer, the underlying sentiment is nothing new. In fact, you can dig up archived newspapers and magazines dating back to the early 1900s and find no shortage of articles about each new age cohort being heralded as the "selfish" or "me" generations.
Krichman also believes millennials get a bad rap, and she doesn't buy into the lazy, do-nothing, no-loyalty critiques. "There are lots of them who are strong employees, innovators and real assets," she said. "When we start moving away from [negative stereotypes of millennials], we'll get better performance from those individuals."
Generation Z is not 'Generation Z'
We don't really have a handle on Gen Z yet, largely because the oldest of them only recently entered the workforce. Also, as they're primarily in their teens and early 20s, they're still establishing their individual identities, so it's not easy to get a strong impression of their collective one.
Still, when you look at what's been said about this group to date, much of it sounds like warmed-over descriptions of millennials—e.g., they love technology and they're really diverse. These things might be true, but it's hardly the sum of their worldview.
Even the name has a kind of "placeholder" quality to it. Yet just as generation Y eventually came to be known as the millennials, so too will generation Z likely be called something different in time as more distinguishing characteristics emerge.
No generation has a monopoly on technology
While it's probably safe to say that gen Z and millennials are more interested in technology generally, the members of those generations aren't all gurus who must always have the latest and greatest in every tech category. In fact, much of their interest in tech products is driven more by brand consciousness and status than it is by a genuine fascination by things like computers, code and the cloud.
The fact is, you can find plenty of high-tech enthusiasts—coders, server architects, multimedia designers and so forth—in each generation. And using Snapchat all the time doesn't make someone an "expert" on technology.
"In every generation, you're always going to have early adopters of technology," Krichman said. "Anything new, they want it, no matter how old they are. And then there are going to be people in every generation who find comfort in brands that have been around for a million years, particularly ones they remember from their childhoods."
REWARDS AND RECOGNITION: DO GENERATIONS MATTER?
Given the commonalities among all people regardless of age, as well as the ways in which these demographic categories have been misrepresented and abused, you might be wondering: Is it all that useful to consider generational differences when planning and executing incentive programs? Yes, but perhaps not in the ways we've been taught to think about these things.
The tendency has been to think of it in terms such as, "boomers want X, but millennials want Y." These kinds of sweeping generalizations can make individual employees feel misunderstood—and your organization seem out of touch. Instead, it's better to think of certain trends as moving up or down along a spectrum of age.
For instance, the desired frequency and intensity of recognition often declines as people get older, Schweyer said.
"In terms of recognition, you can go overboard," he explained. "For people who have 20 years on the job, it's almost worse to give them too much recognition than too little. It starts to feel false to people who have been around a lot longer. Most of the better performers will start to see it early on too, and they'll tend to be a little more skeptical of it. It's more meaningful if it's used in a more reserved way for them."
On the other hand, with younger employees, "you almost can't go overboard," Schweyer said. And that desire is hardly unique to millennials and gen Z, he added.
"People will say, 'Oh, these millennials. They want recognition every day,'" he said. "Yeah, but so did you when you were 20-something years old. When [older generations] were in their 20s and at the start of their career, they were driven more by frequent recognition. They wanted to be reassured. These things are still important at any age. You can probably find 80-year-olds in the workforce who want to be appreciated and don't want to be left out of learning, but it's more important and vital when you're just starting out."
Krichman agreed. "Everybody is different, and things should be more individualized, whether it's with a merchandise gift or in giving an 'attaboy,'" she said. "I do think people in the baby boomer and silent generations are used to a more structured feel—thanks for your years of service, or you went above and beyond. But people in the newer generations tend to like constant check-ins. They want communication all the time and to be told they're doing something right. They want regular engagement with their direct supervisor or their peers. That's probably the biggest difference [among the generations]."
Also, younger employees will be more inclined to share their accomplishments—and the rewards that come with them—whether their organization facilitates that sharing or not.
"The younger generations are more into the social part of recognition and sharing their achievements with anybody and everybody who will listen and want to talk about it," Krichman said. "For example, they'll show off the fact that they got a Michael Kors handbag. They're more vocal about it. They want everyone to know how well they did. The older generations tend to be a little more reserved with it."
The older the employees, the more likely they'll be driven by the intrinsic side of motivation, Schweyer said. They've done more, and they just don't need the validation as much. Rewards and recognition aimed at those generations should reflect that.
"I think the real danger of rewards and recognition isn't as much giving the wrong reward to the wrong person so much as it is using them as carrots," he explained. "It's a lot harder to think of it that way than to say, 'Hey, if you sell a thousand widgets this week, I'll give you an extra $100.'
That works for a little while, and then you've got to make it $200. And then $500. That's the nature of using rewards like carrots. The older the cohort, the more subtle you have to be about using incentives."
However, age and generational categories aren't relevant to every aspect of rewards and recognition, Schweyer pointed out.
"You might prefer to be recognized in an intimate setting by a supervisor with only a few colleagues around you, or you might want to be called up on a stage in front of the entire company with the CEO," he said. "That doesn't map to generations very well. It maps better to introvert or extrovert personality types. It doesn't matter if you're 25 or 50."
There are two key takeaways in all of this: First, as Krichman put it, "It doesn't matter what year you were born—everybody wants to be rewarded and recognized in some way for their contribution."
Second, being members of the same generation is no guarantee that they'll be motivated by the same things. Schweyer offered a very personal example of this.
"I have twins," he said. "They're in the same cohort, even if you slice it down to one day. They were born within 15 minutes of each other. If I want to reward them, I can give both of them a chocolate chip cookie and they'll be happy. But if I really want to reward them in a way that's meaningful to them, I'll give them very different things because I know who they are.
"If that's the case with two people who are born on the same day," he added, "believe me, it's the case with 80 million people who were born within the same 20-year span."
This article originally appeared in Premium Incentive Products Magazine.