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Commentary: The Research-Practice Gap – Diversity Predicts Performance

Stories about generation differences are ubiquitous in the diversity domain, with executives and managers being warned that they must change their organizational cultures, policies and practices if they hope to attract and retain younger workers. In today’s column, we discuss two recent studies that address these questions and offer some surprising answers.

Kali Trzesniewski (University of Western Ontario) and her colleague Brent Donnellan (Michigan State University) analyzed data obtained from high school seniors annually from 1976 through 2006. Participants were randomly sampled; therefore, we can assume that the sample (almost half a million students) is representative of American high school seniors. Because the participants always were high school seniors, this approach separates the effect of age from that of generation. Thus, this study addresses the question of whether today’s young employees differ from young employees over the past 30 years.

The researchers found statistically significant effects of cohort year on all 31 psychological variables. That is not very meaningful, however, because such a large sample virtually guarantees statistical significance. Therefore, to interpret their results the authors focus on the sizes of the effects. They find only eight variables with effects that qualify as “small” using two different (and reasonable) standards. They judged effects of the other 23 variables to be too small to merit attention. The minuscule effects, contrary to common claims of importance, reveal that the youngest respondents (Millennials) did not differ from the oldest respondents (late Boomers) in self-esteem, egotism or life satisfaction. The strongest message of this study is that differences among individuals within a given cohort are much larger than differences between cohorts. That is, today’s youth are not much different from the youth of 30 years ago.

A second study by Brenda Kowske, Rena Rasch and Jack Wiley, all at the Kenexa Research Institute, connects more directly to the workplace. They analyzed data obtained annually or biannually since 1985. All 113,704 respondents were volunteers who worked full time for U.S. companies with more than 100 employees. The participants reported their work attitudes, such as job satisfaction and turnover intentions. The authors employ a widely accepted taxonomy with five generations — GIs, Silents, Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials. They further divided respondents in the Silent, Boomer and X generations into three smaller cohorts by birth year and Millennials into two cohorts.

Because the respondents each year varied in age, the researchers could separate the effects of age, cohort (e.g., Millennials), and historical period on job attitudes. Their key findings were similar to those of Trzesniewski and Donnellan. Once again, there were statistically significant effects of generation on all the job attitudes, but most effects were very small. They, too, emphasize that individual differences within a generation were much larger than differences between generations. Their data set enabled them to explore more detailed differences among the generations, which they did for the four variables on which generation had non-trivial (albeit small) effects: satisfaction with overall company and job, satisfaction with job security, satisfaction with recognition and satisfaction with career development and advancement. In each case, they found a curvilinear function of cohort, so late Boomers were the most dissatisfied and Millennials were among the most satisfied — and generally similar to members of the Silent generation.

Because these two studies used huge data sets gathered over many years, we can be much more confident in the validity of the results than we can in the result of most research and certainly in comparison to conclusions based solely on intuition and personal impressions.

Nonetheless, there are some limitations in the generalizability and interpretability of this research. First, both studies were limited to U.S. respondents and the latter to those who were full-time employees in organizations of at least 100 employees.

In addition, it is impossible to know to what extent the generation differences

or similarities stem from similar or differential treatment of employees by managers, or simply stage of life. Nonetheless, we think it is safe to accept the truth of the general conclusion that differences between generations are small compared to differences within generations.

The practical implications of this work are straightforward. Diversity practitioners have unquestionably seen an increase in interest from clients in doing generational work. However, this focus has a troublesome side — although small differences between generations do exist, the content of much generational training is more likely based on stereotypes. It is much easier and frankly, more fun, to talk about perceived generational differences than to do the hard work of addressing more substantial challenges involving gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion. Organizations would be better counseled to focus on creating inclusive work environments that support all workers’ needs regardless of their age, stage of life, or other demographic status. D

— Dr. David A. Kravitz is a professor of management at George Mason University. Dr. Renée Yuengling is a workplace diversity consultant in Washington, D.C.

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