Generational Differences At Work Are Small. Thinking They’re Big Affects Our Behavior

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.


Why You Should Create a “Shadow Board” of Younger EmployeesWhy You Should Create a “Shadow Board” of Younger Employees

A lot of companies struggle with two apparently unrelated problems: disengaged younger workers and a weak response to changing market conditions. A few companies have tackled both problems at the same time by creating a “shadow board” — a group of non-executive employees that works with senior executives on strategic initiatives. The purpose? To leverage the younger groups’ insights and to diversify the perspectives that executives are exposed to.

They seem to work. Consider Prada and Gucci, two fashion companies with a good track record of keeping up with — or shaping — consumer tastes. Until recently, Prada enjoyed high margins, a legendary creative director, and good growth opportunities. But since 2014, it has witnessed declining sales. In 2017, the company finally admitted that it had been “slow in realizing the importance of digital channels and the blogging online ‘influencers’ which are disrupting the industry.” Co-CEO Patrizio Bertelli said, “We made a mistake.”

Over the same period, under the direction of CEO Mario Bizzarri, Gucci underwent a comprehensive transformation that made the company more relevant to today’s marketplace. Gucci created a shadow board composed of Millennials who, since 2015, have met regularly with the senior team. According to Bizzarri, the shadow board includes people drawn from different functions; they’re “the most talented people in the organization — many of them very young.” They talk through the issues that the executive committee is focused on and their insights have “served as a wakeup call for the executives.” Gucci’s sales have since grown 136% — from 3,497 million Euro (FY2014) to 8,285 million Euro (FY2018) — a growth driven largely by the success of both its internet and digital strategies. In the same period, Prada’s sales have dropped by 11.5%, from 3,551 million Euro (FY2014) to 3,142 million Euro (FY2018).

We researched companies that use shadow boards, trying to understand what they really contribute to the organization and what best practices look like. We focus here on three companies’ experiences.

Business model reinvention. Facing increasing pressure from Airbnb, French AccorHotels needed a new business model. Top management asked marketing to develop a brand for Millennials. However, after two years marketing came up empty. Arantxa Balson, chief talent and culture officer, decided to turn the project over to a shadow board. In 2018, the Jo&Joe brand was born. Considered “an urban shelter for Millennials,” the brand communicates creativity, flexibility, and a strong sense of community. According to Balson, the shadow board succeeded in part because they focused on their vision and developed their point of view “regardless of all internal and cost constraints.” The shadow board then gave birth to another innovation, the Accor Pass, a hotel subscription that provided people under 25 with a place to stay while they hunted for a permanent residence.

Process redesign. Stora Enso, a Finnish paper and packaging company, used their shadow board (which they call Pathfinders and Pathbuilders) to revise how the executive committee assigned work. Until this shift, work was assigned to groups that the executives considered experts and therefore best suited to the assignment. The shadow board convinced them to assign certain tasks to non-experts, arguing that an unbiased view would increase the chance of breakthroughs. One project, aimed at reducing supply-chain lead time, had stumped a supposedly expert team. The new team came up with a workable plan within six months. No team members came from the business unit in question, nor had they any prior supply chain experience.

Organizational transformation. CVL Srinivas, the CEO of GroupM India, needed to implement a three-year digital and cultural transformation. With that end in mind, he created the YCO (Youth Committee). Since its inception in 2013, the YCO has led GroupM’s Vision 3.0, making digital the centerpiece for driving future growth. Working across departments, the shadow board also led a scoping initiative focused on the digitalization of contracts. It strengthened GroupM’s ecosystem by increasing the number and improving the nature of partnerships with media owners, data providers, consultants, auditors, and start-ups. Additionally, the group noticed that there wasn’t much cross-agency interaction. To promote meaningful conversations, the YCO developed a social media platform (Yammer) that facilitated conversations between management and lower-level employees across agencies.

Increased visibility for Millennials. Research suggests that Millennials crave more visibility and access, which shadow boards deliver. This visibility often results in significant career progression for shadow board members. At Stora Enso, a female shadow board member was a group-level financial controller when she began the program. As a result of her impressive work on a project involving one of their legacy businesses (paper), she was promoted to be the sales director of the largest paper segment a few months after the program’s end. As HR director Lars Haggstrom stated, “This [promotion] would never have happened had it not been for the shadow board program.”

What are the best practices for implementing a shadow board?

Look beyond the “high-potential” group. Many companies staff shadow boards exclusively through executive-committee nominations or with already identified high potentials. Millennial participants tend to prefer a more open process. Stora Enso’s Haggstrom pushed for an open-application process — allowing anyone who fit certain criteria to apply. Doing so not only created a more diverse cohort; it also allowed the company to discover some hidden gems who would not otherwise have been on the radar. Interestingly, they tested the performance of the company’s top forty high potentials (who were clear shoo-ins for the program) against the employees chosen via open enrollment. On abilities such as data analytic skills, sense-making, and teamwork, the open-enrollment members outperformed the high-potentials.

Make it a CEO-sponsored program. In order for the program to have maximum impact, support needs to come from the top of the organization (though most are coordinated on a procedural level by HR). For example, AccorHotels’ shadow board program succeeds because CEO Sebastian Bazin plays an active role by interviewing potential members and regularly interacting with existing members. At Stora Enso, members reported directly to the CEO on issues related to the Pathfinders and Pathbuilders work.

Keep evaluating and iterating. All of the companies we profiled adjusted the programs as they learned what worked (and what didn’t). For example, Stora Enso’s leaders reviewed the program annually and as a result added resources to better capitalize on diversity within the shadow board and interactions between the shadow board and executive committee. And while GroupM’s YCO program originated as a 12-month program, the organization extended it by one year in order for the YCO to maximize potential contributions.

Jennifer Jordan, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. Her research focuses on power, ethics, leadership, and the intersection of these topics.

Michael Sorell is a research associate at IMD.