Generational Myth Busting

Generational Myth Busting

Are you a loyal and hard-working Baby Boomer, getting tired of those unrealistic Gen Y dreamers? Or perhaps an independent, self-sufficient Gen Xer, who’s sick of hearing every detail from those over-sharing Gen Zers? Or maybe you’re a tech savvy Gen Y or Gen Z, wondering why older generations are so out of touch, and reluctant to embrace the delight of Snapchat. It’s true that every generation has their stereotypes and differences. But how different are these generations? How do these differences impact the way we work and what do they really mean for business?

The bulk of existing research has pointed to younger generations, particularly Gen Ys, as being the most unique group. Their arrival in the workplace was often referred to as a “challenge” for management to overcome, with their different work values and viewpoints. However, the surprising findings of original research by this author suggests otherwise.

This research into leadership views and behaviour involved 173 participants across the four generations, from a range of industry backgrounds and professions, including: aviation, banking and finance, hospitality, marketing and advertising, and professional services. Through using the research tools of career ambition questionnaires and personal leadership style and leadership self-confidence surveys, the data showed that Baby Boomers were the most distinctive and different generation, in terms of their workplace characteristics and preferences. So, what makes Boomers so special and what are the implications for organisations?


The research findings

In summary, the research compared career ambition, leadership self-confidence, and personal leadership style, across generations, and found the following patterns:

  • Career ambition: in terms of career ambition, all four generations are practically identical, with no significant difference in how much they agreed with statements such as; “I aim to be the best in the world at what I do”, and “I am driven to succeed”. No cohort was more or less ambitious than the others.
  • Leadership self-confidence: we found that confidence in one’s own ability to lead others was quite different between the groups. Boomers had far more confidence in their ability to lead than any of the other generations – even more so than apparently over-confident and unrealistic Gen Y.
  • Personal leadership style: transformational leadership, where leaders earn loyalty from their followers by encouraging them to work towards a higher collective goal was considered by Boomers to be an effective style, which they attempted to emulate. Conversely, laissez-faire leadership – where leaders delegate all responsibility to employees – seemed to be the preferred style displayed by younger generations.


So what does this mean?

Career ambition: older generations need (and deserve) development too

There is an assumption that younger generations should be the primary – and only – target of career development. This stems from a view that older generations have somehow “reached the top”, or reached their full potential for development. Not only is this ageist, but also bad for business. Baby Boomers and Gen X want recognition for their hard work and will relish a new challenge just as much as a member of Gen Y or Z. If they receive that support they will add even more value to the business than they do now. All employees should have the same opportunities to prove themselves and progress without being pigeonholed by their age.

Leadership self-confidence: self-belief isn’t a youthful trait, and must be developed

Despite claims that younger generations are over-confident, it turns out that Baby Boomers are much more confident in their ability to lead others. Given that they’ve had more time in leadership positions, it could just come down to age and experience. However, Generations X, Y and Z scored almost identically in this measure, despite a 40 year age gap between the oldest Gen Xer and youngest Gen Zer. Could the Boomer confidence, then, be a generational trait instead? And does confidence always equate to competence? In either case, a lack of leadership self-confidence in the younger generations implies that organisations need to better support the development of future leaders early on. In particular they should focus on building their confidence to lead later in their careers.

Leadership style preference: leadership style needs to align with employee needs

The substantial difference in the leadership preferences of Baby Boomers from other generations brings up a number of questions. Is such a hands off approach of younger generations a reflection of their lack of confidence? Could some cross-generational conflicts occur as a result of this difference in leadership style preference? For example, would younger generations interpret Boomers who take a more involved approach as trying to micromanage them? How will leadership cultures evolve as Generations X, Y and Z progress up the management ladder? A laissez faire style is linked to low productivity in employees, suggesting more investment is required for emerging leaders, both to engage their own and other generations in the workforce.


So we got it wrong

Contrary to popular belief, Gen Y isn’t all that different to the generations below and above, while Baby Boomers have the most characteristics and preferences that conflict with other generational groups.

The focus, then, for many HR and management professionals should take a new approach. Instead of worrying about how to manage Gen Y and Gen Z, they should be focussing on futureproofing their organisation by looking at all generations. It’s critical for organisations to adapt to the change that will occur when senior Baby Boomer leaders retire, and the organisational culture they leave behind does not match the wants or needs of those who inherit the organisation. However, changing the culture may be made easier because of the relative similarity between Generations X, Y and Z, meaning that we may see less conflict fuelled by generational differences, although differences associated with experience and life stage are likely to remain and will need to be managed.


Tara Jones is a director in PA Consulting’s London office, where Dennis Layton is a principal.

The authors would like to thank Andrea Alexander, Mauricio Arnau, Lori Dobeus, Kirill Dushkin, Lauren Miller, and Katie Smith for their contributions to this report.

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