Look around your workplace and you are likely to see people from across the age span, particularly as more Americans are working past age 55. In fact, the Society for Human Resource Management argues that there are a full five generations on the job today, from the Silent Generation to Gen Z.
A result of this boost in age diversity are conversations about how generational differences will impact the functioning of our organizations. After all, Millennials only want to communicate with coworkers via text — and Baby Boomers don’t text, right? And you need to attract those tech-y Millennials with promises of flexible work schedules, but their older counterparts all want a traditional workday, correct? Well, actually, wrong.
Most of the evidence for generational differences in preferences and values suggests that differences between these groups are quite small. In fact, there is a considerable variety of preferences and values within any of these groups. For example, a thorough analysis of 20 different studies with nearly 20,000 people revealed small and inconsistent differences in job attitudes when comparing generational groups. It found that, although individual people may experience changes in their needs, interests, preferences, and strengths over the course of their careers, sweeping group differences depending on age or generation alone don’t seem to be supported.
So what might really matter at work are not actual differences between generations, but people’s beliefs that these differences exist. These beliefs can get in the way of how people collaborate with their colleagues, and have troubling implications for how we people are managed and trained.
Why Do We Have Inaccurate Beliefs about Age?
An emerging area of research in the field of Industrial-Organizational Psychology considers age-related beliefs from two different but intermingling angles. Work on age stereotypes looks at the content and impact of beliefs about people from another age group. A stereotype about young people, for example, might be that they are narcissistic.
A relatively newer concept called age meta-stereotypes looks at what we think others believe about us based on our age group. A young person, then, might worry that other people think they are narcissistic, even if the other people are not actually thinking this. If both of these processes are occurring in an age-diverse workplace at the same time, employees are likely having knee-jerk thoughts about what other people must be like (stereotypes) while simultaneously assuming that the same people are making assumptions about them (meta-stereotypes).
Our research suggests that workplaces are brimming with age-related stereotypes and meta-stereotypes, and that these beliefs are not always accurate or aligned. In one survey of 247 young (18-29), middle-aged (33-50), and older workers (51-84), people described the qualities that might be true of people in another age group (their stereotypes). They also described the qualities that other people might have about their own age group (their meta-stereotypes).
The pattern of their responses varied by age group. People’s stereotypes of older workers were largely positive and included words like “responsible,” “hard-working,” and “mature.” Yet older workers themselves worried that others might see them as “boring,” “stubborn,” and “grumpy.” The stereotypes of middle-aged workers were largely positive (“ethical”), and they believed the other age groups would see them as positive (“energetic”).
Stereotypes about younger workers were somewhat less positive, however, resulting in more of a range of stereotypes from positive (“enthusiastic”) to negative (“inexperienced”). Even so, younger workers believed that others would see them in a more negative manner than they actually did (“unmotivated” and “irresponsible”). Broadly, these results demonstrate that older and younger workers believe others view them more negatively than they actually do. These cases confirm that neither age-related stereotypes or meta-stereotypes are accurate.
How Do Inaccurate Beliefs About Age Affect Our Workplaces?
Despite their inaccuracy, people’s beliefs have critical implications for workplace interactions. In one laboratory experiment, we asked undergraduate students to train another person on a computer task using Google’s chat function. Another undergraduate was asked to listen to the training and then perform the task. We varied whether each person — the trainer and the trainee — appeared to be old (approximately 53) or young (approximately 23) using photographs and voice-modifying software.
We found that stereotypes about older people’s ability to learn new tasks interfered with the training they received. When trainers believed that they were teaching an older person how to do the computer task, they had lower expectations and provided worse training than when they believed they were teaching a young person. These results demonstrate that poorer training is a direct result of age stereotypes. The potential consequences of these findings are alarming, as inferior training can result in reduced learning and ultimately interfere with employees’ job performance.
Moreover, people’s beliefs about what others think about their age group — their meta-stereotypes — can also interfere with their work behavior. A recently published studyexamined how people react to meta-stereotypes over the course of a work week. As expected, sometimes people react with a sense of challenge (“Oh yeah? I’ll show them!”) and sometimes they report more threat (“Oh no, what if I live up to this negative expectation?”).
Importantly, these reactions can also impact interpersonal behaviors at work. Both threats and challenges led to conflict at work (things like arguing or not getting along with colleagues) and avoidance behaviors (things like keeping to oneself and avoiding interacting with others).
We also considered the implications of meta-stereotypes for mentoring relationships in law and in medicine in another study that we recently presented at a conference with our colleagues. Surveys of mentor-protégé pairs suggested that protégé attempts to overcome meta-stereotypes sometimes had a negative effect on their relationships. Specifically, when protégés tried to deemphasize their youth by appearing or acting older, their mentors were less supportive.
So What Should Managers Do?
If there are not real and consistent differences between people of different age groups, but these stereotyping and meta-stereotyping processes end up creating artificial generational divides, what is a manager supposed to do?
First, openly talking about these stereotypes and meta-stereotypes can be a great first step. Combining this effort with practices in perspective-taking (e.g., role-taking, role reversal exercises), cooperating (e.g., emphasizing the advantages of working with an age-diverse group), and sharing of stories among age-diverse employees can help people recognize and possibly call attention to these processes when they creep into the workplace.
Another strategy that can be effective might be emphasizing shared goals. By doing so, both older and younger people can see themselves as part of the same team working toward the same outcome. Indeed, focusing on commonalities or a common directioncan reduce perceptions of “us” versus “them” and can create or reinforce a sense of “we.”
Finally, managers would benefit from recognizing that employees often change over time due to varying priorities, demands, experiences, and physical capacities. These changes can take many forms. For instance, research has shown that people face different types of work-family conflict at different stages of their lives, from young adulthood through middle adulthood and into late adulthood. However, not every employee within the same age group will have the same experiences at the same exact time. Therefore, engaging in an ongoing and open dialogue with employees to discuss shifting needs can help managers keep their hard-working and experienced employees engaged, happy, and productively collaborating with others for the long haul.
Eden King is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice University. She is pursuing a program of research that seeks to guide the equitable and effective management of diverse organizations. She has also partnered with organizations to improve diversity climate, increase fairness in selection systems, and to design and implement diversity training programs.
Lisa Finkelstein is a professor in the social and industrial-organizational psychology area of the psychology department at Northern Illinois University and a fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She conducts research on diversity, stereotypes, and stigma at work, including age, disability, body weight, and gender, among others. She also studies mentoring relationships, high potential designation, and humor at work.
Courtney Thomas is a doctoral candidate in the Social-Industrial/Organizational program at Northern Illinois University. She conducts research on person perception related to topics like stereotyping, stigma, and diversity. While her research mainly focuses on the aging realm of diversity and inclusion, she also conducts research on other stigmatized identities like disability and obesity.
Abby Corrington is a fifth-year graduate student who spent time in the corporate world prior to joining the Industrial/Organizational Ph.D. program at Rice University. She conducts research on the different ways that people express and remediate discrimination. She has received several grants for her work and has published in Journal of Vocational Behavior and Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion.