Generational Differences in the Workforce

Workforce in today’s organisations fall into four broad categories and it has been well established that individuals growing up in different times has affected their values, behaviours and viewpoints. These generational differences present a significant challenge for current organisations. This topic of Generational differences at work place has been immensely researched over the past decade. There has been a spawning number of consulting reports, magazine articles, academic literature produced and replicated in-order to conclude these differences in perceived and actual values between four generations of workforce (Lyons, Urick, Kuron, & Schweitzer, 2015). Costanza & Finkelstein (2015) reported that the evidence presented in majority of research about this topic is controversial and lacks the depth and rigor (Costanza & Finkelstein, 2015).

An appraisal of vast majority of systematic and critical reviews provide documented evidence that the perceived differences across the generations might exist, but do these generational cohorts actually have different wishes  in a work context or is it perceived commonly held biases that needs to be investigated empirically (Lyons et al., 2015).

This question has been addressed in a research conducted by (Lester, Standifer, Schultz, & Windsor, 2012) in the article titled as Actual Verses Perceived Generational Differences at Work; An empirical Examination. (Lester et al., 2012) have discussed generational differences in detail, with emphasis on why the nature of these values may lead to the generational misconceptions and its impact on the workplaces. This study thus provides an articulate discussion about the perceived and actual differences in the organisations with multigenerational workforce and its impact on workplace. This summary briefing will share the salient features of the article by (Lester et al., 2012) and will provide the insight of this research paper concluding with application of the key concepts to my current workplace.

Literature Review

Generational cohort theory established by Inglehart (1997) merely states that the behaviour and values of the generations born in the same era are shaped by the internal and external events of that era. The generations who are affected by the comparable issues, impacted by the same events and share similar experiences are likely to have similar underlying work values.

According to (Lester et al., 2012) currently there are four different generational cohorts in the American workforce; Traditionalists, Boomers, Generation X and Generation X based on the era they were born. This board categorization has been reasoned throughout the literature, traditionalist include individuals born prior to 1946, boomers between 1946 and 1964, Generation X between 1965 and 1981 and Generation Y between 1981 and 2000. Literature suggests that these generational cohorts possess a unique set of distinctive and unique characteristics that distinguish their workplace tendencies (Hill & Stephens, 2003). This study only includes three generational cohorts due to the reason Traditionalists (65 years of age) is commonly viewed as the benchmark age for the retirement (Lester et al., 2012).



This generational cohort is viewed as consensus seekers, who are competitive micromanagers and possess a moderate level of disrespect for authority. Preference of Face-to-face interaction and conventional mail are other characteristics of this generational cohort, additionally they are presumed to open in using online tools are resources in their work (Reynolds et al., 2008, cited in Lester et al., 2012, p. 342).

Generation X

This generational cohort is viewed as sceptical individuals who prefer relatively informal work climate with weaker work ethics. They crave autonomy, challenge authority and believe in work-life balance, where personal activity takes priority. Additionally, they prefer technology based interactions in comparison to face -to-face meetings and value direct feedback form the leaders (Twenge., 2010; Reynolds et al., 2008, cited in Lester et al., 2012, p342).

Generation X

This generational cohort is viewed as technology driven, multitasking individuals who prefer working with peers in a team oriented work environment. They strongly value fast paced technological interactions and regard work-life balance important and where engagement with friends and family take priority over work commitments (Sessa et al., 2007; Steele & Gordon, 2006; Crumpacker & Crumpacker, 2007; Myers & Sadaghiani, 2010, cited in Lester et al., 2012, p342).

The literature review suggested although there are many assumptions and perceptions for each of the generational cohort but very little empirical evidence exists to substantiate these differences (Twenge, 2010).  Lester et al. (2012) selected 15 specific aspects of one’s work context; and the reasoning was based on the generational cohort theory. They also expected greatest actual disparity in generational preferences with respect to technology; e-mail communication; social media; technology; formal authority and fun-at-work.

On the basis of generational cohort theory, the generations are likely to differ across generational lines in technological means of communication. This is rational on the basis that Boomers generation grew up without the significant exposure to the technology compared to Generation X. The other end of the spectrum is Generation Y who have been exposed to digital world throughout their entire lives; would be expected to place highest value on technology (Lester et al., 2012).  The generational theory also suggests that when Boomers entered workforce communicating was predominantly by phone, face-to-face and through traditional mail; by the time Generation X cohort joined employment early use of internet and email had arrived. However, the communication for Generation X has been drastically changed by social media like (Facebook, Twitter & Texting etc.).

Another area of difference between the generation cohorts will be the preference regarding work culture due to one’s view of formal authority and its association with leadership (Crampton & Hodge, 2007., cited in Lester et al.,2012).

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On the other hand, perceived differences in what generational cohorts desire in their work context are expected in far greater number. Firstly,  from the attribution theory perspective that proposes in order to understand the cause of our or someone else human behaviour, individuals have tendency to link these traits to internal or external causes rather than assuming the behaviours are random in nature (Bell, 2008). Due to this reason it will not be surprising to see generational cohorts have different perception of work values across with respect to each generation lines (Buss, 1978).

According to Lester et al (2012) generational stereotyping is another reason for expected perceptual differences across three generational cohorts in the study. Immense research in the area of negative and positive stereotyping exit in literature. No statistical significant differences exist yet age stereotyping exist in all organisations with multigenerational workforce. Literature suggests older employees are more likely to contemplate they have stronger work ethics then younger employees of an organisation and younger employees are likely to think they are better at multi-tasking and creativity compared to older employees (Blauth, McDaniel, Perrin, & Perrin, 2011). Additionally, authors suggest that in expecting generational value differences regarding technology, views of authority, communication and work culture, these actual value differences will influence perceived generational differences (Lester et al., 2012, p344).

Hypothesis 1

Actual generational differences exist regarding the extent to which technology, face-to-face communication, e-mail communication, social media, formal authority and fun-at-work are valued (Lester et al., 2012, p 344).

Hypothesis 2

There are more perceived value differences between generations than actual value differences (Lester et al., 2012, p 344).


This study was conducted in United States from a Midwestern organisation. The sample size was 466, with a response received form 263 employees. Female participants formed 84% of the workforce with 16% being male. Participants ranged from 17 to 65 years of age with 4 % having a graduate degree, 30% with bachelor’s degree, 19% 2-year associate degree, 30% had attend some college and 17% reported of having completed high school. The data was gathered though online survey using a 6-point Likert-type scale (Lester et al., 2012).


Participants were placed in the four generational categories on the basis of their age where 62 categorised as Generation Y, 102 Boomers and 99 Generation Y respectively. Three or four participants fell into Traditionalist but were included into Boomers category due to their small number (Lester et al., 2012).

Participants were asked about the how they personally valued already selected 15 different items (table 1) that could represent their work content “I Value” and then they were asked to rate the same items based on the extent to which they believed each if the three generations valued the items (Lester et al., 2012).

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Table 1 (15 specific aspects of one’s work context and I value measure grouping

Table 1. “I Value” Measure Groupings


Nature of Job






Formal authority

Face-to-face communication


E-mail communication




Social media

Continuous learning


Fun at work


(Lester et al., 2012, p346).


Multivariate statistical analysis was conducted to test the relationship between generational designation and 15 “I Value” items. Control variables of gender, educational level, ethnicity and generational design were entered as fixed factors and 15 “I Value” items were entered as dependent variables.

Table 2. Hypothesis 1: Actual Differences Between Generations on “I Value” Items



Generation Y

Generation X




E-mail communication




   Generation Y reports valuing it more than

   Boomers report valuing it

Social media




   Generation Y reports valuing it more than

Generation X reports valuing it

3.90                                            2.40              1.50***      Generation Y reports valuing it more than

Boomers report valuing it

Fun at work                    5.48                    4.79                                      0.69**          Generation Y reports valuing it more than

Generation X reports valuing it

5.48                                            4.82              0.66**       Generation Y reports valuing it more than

Boomers report valuing it

Continuous learning




   Generation Y reports valuing it more than

Boomers report valuing it





   Boomers report valuing it more than

Generation X reports valuing it

a. The values represent absolute difference mean scores.  *p ≤ .05. **p ≤ .01. ***p ≤ .001 (Lester et al., 2012, p347).


Bell, E. E. (2008). Exploring employee perception of the work environment along generational lines. Performance Improvement, 47(9), 35-45.

Blauth, C., McDaniel, J., Perrin, C., & Perrin, P. (2011). Age-based stereotypes: Silent killer of collaboration and productivity. No. M01360). Tampa: AchieveGlobal.

Buss, A. R. (1978). Causes and reasons in attribution theory: A conceptual critique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(11), 1311.

Costanza, D. P., & Finkelstein, L. M. (2015). Generationally based differences in the workplace: Is there a there there? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8(03), 308-323.

Hill, R. P., & Stephens, D. L. (2003). The compassionate organization in the 21st century. Organizational Dynamics, 32(4), 331-341.

Lester, S. W., Standifer, R. L., Schultz, N. J., & Windsor, J. M. (2012). Actual versus perceived generational differences at work an empirical examination. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19(3), 341-354.

Lyons, S., Urick, M., Kuron, L., & Schweitzer, L. (2015). Generational Differences in the Workplace: There Is Complexity Beyond the Stereotypes. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8(03), 346-356.

Twenge, J. M. (2010). A review of the empirical evidence on generational differences in work attitudes. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(2), 201-210.

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