The Generation Gap: A Real Issue or a Gimmick?

As I've written before here, the issues surrounding the four generations in the workplace have become a very hot topic in the last couple of years. Clients ask me to speak and give workshops on the effects of the various generations' approach to work on their interaction on teams and ramifications for workplace communication and conflict. Some colleagues of mine have even specialized their professional speaking and writing businesses around the multi-generational workplace. An entire 'cottage industry' has sprung up around disseminating advice and information on ways to remedy the generation gap.

Yet, like many other 'buzz' topics, this one has enjoyed its fair share of controversy. There have always been the naysayers who claim that there isn't much substance behind the distinctions and that the focus on differences is unnecessarily divisive and counter-productive for business. Many are saying that it is merely a trendy 'flavor-of-the-month' workplace drama that will lose its appeal in due time to be replaced by a new gimmicky trend. It  is becoming increasingly difficult to decipher where the truth lies.

Just in Saturday's mail I received my latest issue of ASTD's T&D Magazine. Thumbing through its pages, my eye landed on this article quoting the latest research from AchieveGlobal claiming that "[t]alking about generations might be a clever way to sell a book or a theory, but in today's workplace, age is just a number, not a distinguishing trait."

This study's results apparently suggest that employees do not associate themselves with the demographic character distinctions that have been ascribed to their generation in the 'generation gap' literature. In comparing employees based on the identified generational age groups and how they rated various job attributes, these researchers found a minimal margin of difference between age groups on most attributes. "The hype appears to be more perception than reality," according to the report.

I am on the fence on this issue. I agree that this issue is receiving more credence and hype than it merits. There is an inherent flaw in following a trend blindly and inflating its utility value. And, there is a real danger in haphazardly boxing people into categories in the workplace - this habit can lead to unfair stereotyping without sufficient regard for reality and contextual circumstances.

However, the research I've read from brilliant minds like Strauss and Howe shows remarkable and unmistakable distinctions that stem not from the age of any particular group but from the era in which their identity was shaped. I think there is tremendous value in recognizing how these enduring patterns hailing from historical context shape generations (described beautifully in Strauss and Howe's seminal Harvard Business Review article in the summer of 2007).

Maybe the real lesson is this: don't blindly paint broad strokes around people that can harm them. Don't blindly gush after 'false idols' and so-called gurus that are dangerously exploiting trends to make a quick buck without exercising sufficient care and moderation. Encourage careful and healthy skeptic observation of facts and reality whenever speaking about employees as groups.

We need to use the rich data being collected on both sides of this issue to form objective, informed decisions and use our own logic and rational thinking to make smart decisions on the best course of action in any given situation.

What do you think about this issue? Where do you stand in the controversy - is the generational gap in the workplace a serious business issue or a trendy gimmick?