Headlines frequently appear that purport to highlight the differences among workers of different generations and explain how employers can manage the wants and needs of each generation. But is each new generation really that different from previous ones? Are there fundamental differences among generations that impact how they act and interact in the workplace? Or are the perceived differences among generations simply an indicator of age-related differences between older and younger workers or a reflection of all people adapting to a changing workplace? To answer these questions, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine was asked by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences to appoint an expert committee to review the scientific literature regarding generations in the workforce.
The Committee on the Consideration of Generational Issues in Workforce Management and Employment Practices included experts in management, industrial and organizational psychology, sociology, economics, research methods and statistics, learning sciences, adult development, personality and psychology, discrimination and diversity, and military personnel. The committee was tasked to assess the scientific literature concerning generational attitudes and behaviors in the workforce, to reach consensus on the state of this research, and to evaluate whether the concept of generations promotes understanding of the workforce and facilitates its management. The committee was also asked to make recommendations for directions for future research and improvements to employment practices.
The committee examined current workforce challenges in several job sectors in the United States. It collected hundreds of articles in the scientific
literature on the topic of generations in the workforce, considered some of the multitude of pieces in the popular press on the same topic, and weighed other research on work and human capital. There is debate on whether there are more similarities than differences across generations of workers and whether generational categories are meaningful groupings in which to distinguish workers. The term “generation” has been used in many ways and has a range of definitions, but is often used to identify a group of people by their birth years.
As discussed in this report, many of the findings comparing different generations of workers are based on data collected at one point in time. In this case, observed differences cannot be tied to specific generational characteristics with certainty because they also can be due to age-related differences.
But what about the notion that today’s young workers are different from young workers years ago? Some research has compared work values among young adults over time. Still, observed differences cannot be tied to specific generational characteristics with certainty because they also can be due to period changes that have affected everyone in society.
So what does it matter if real or perceived differences among workers are labeled as age, period, or generational differences? Given the existing hype on generations in the workforce in the popular discourse, it is important for research to attempt to distinguish generation effects from age and period effects. Not doing so limits the utility of research findings to inform management decisions. The best research would enable employers to consider, for example, whether the characteristics they observe in young recruits and recent hires (1) will persist in this generation of workers, (2) will change as they age, or (3) are representative of societal changes more generally that are affecting all workers. Further, since birth year is a fixed characteristic of individuals, it is important to avoid stereotyping and labeling a group of workers with attributes that could change as they age or as shifts in the nature of work occur. These issues are discussed further below, beginning with a look at the changing nature of work, followed by a review of the generational literature and suggestions for improving research in this area, and concluding with guidance for workforce management.
A NEW WORLD OF WORK
Notable economic, military, and political forces and social adjustments have reshaped the organization of work in the United States. These changes include increasing globalization, rapid technological innovation, expansion of the service sector, deregulation, and shifts in employee–employer relationships. At the same time, the characteristics of the workforce have
changed. The education levels and skills of workers have risen as more people have completed high school and sought college degrees. Growth in the employment rates of women and older workers, later retirements, and increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the U.S. population have all contributed to the demographic diversity of today’s workforce. With this diversity comes a range of needs and expectations with respect to work and the workplace.
These broad societal changes have been accompanied by important changes in the social and technical context of work itself. There has been relatively large growth in high- and low-skill jobs and slower growth in middle-skill jobs, polarizing the workforce. High-skill jobs have become more complex, demanding greater creativity and adaptability to solve evolving rather than routine problems. The rise in nonstandard work arrangements—such as contracting—has complicated the relationship between workers and the organizations for which they work. With advancing technologies, many workers have more autonomy as to when, where, and how they conduct their work. At the same time, interdependence among jobs and team-based approaches to work have increased, making interpersonal skills of workers and communication strategies within organizations more important.
These broad and contextual changes have created a demand for new employment practices in many organizations. Employers are seeking guidance on how to develop effective policies and practices for recruitment and retention and how to best manage a diverse workforce in these new work environments.
GENERATIONS IN THE WORKPLACE
One of the key changes in the workplace, and the impetus for this study, has been an increase in the age diversity of the workforce. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the vast majority of the workforce consisted of young workers, aged 16–34, and middle-aged workers, aged 35–54. Starting around 2000, the proportion of older workers,1 aged 55 and up, started to rise. As of 2018, the proportion of older workers was nearing parity with the proportion of young and middle-aged workers, each representing about a third of the U.S. workforce. This increase in age diversity has generated much press about potential differences among generations in the workplace, with some authors claiming as many as five different generations in today’s workplaces.
1 Note that the age that defines “older” workers continues to be debated in the research literature. For the purposes of this report, labor force statistics in age groups from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are used, combined to present what might be three generations of workers.
The concept of generation has a long history of scholarly consideration. Early sociological theories proposed the idea of generational shifts to explain social progress. These theories considered how entire groups of people who were born around the same time in the same area could influence change in society, but they did not focus on describing or understanding individuals within a group. These early theories recognized the importance of historical events at salient human developmental stages but acknowledged that the impact of these events on individuals would vary.
More recently, popular ideas have emerged that have adapted the sociological theories in notable ways. These ideas emphasize the influence of significant historical events on individuals, and propose that these events lead to shared values and behaviors among individuals born between certain years. Individuals born during these years make up a generation (often considered a span of 20 years.) Some labels evolved to connect a significant event to a generation. For example, “baby boomers” were born during years of increased birth rates after World War II, while “millennials” were born in the 1980s and 1990s prior to the turn of the millennium.
In the wake of these popular ideas, researchers in psychology and business management who examine workforce and workplace issues have shifted the focus on generations away from the sociological perspective of understanding social change and toward an understanding of individual work-related values, attitudes, and behaviors. This new body of research uses generational terminology common in the popular press; for example, many researchers use such terms as “baby boomers,” “generation X,” and “millennials” to categorize people in their studies. Most of this research assumes that generations have a set of shared experiences and that these experiences shape the attitudes and values being measured. These experiences are largely undefined but often implied to be associated with significant events (e.g., the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) or social phenomena (e.g., the digital age2) that occurred during a group’s formative years.
The committee found conceptual and methodological limitations with this new generational research. The literature has not taken an empirical approach to define sets of experiences or to investigate the mechanisms by which shared experiences would shape lasting attitudes and subsequent behaviors across a large group of people. Moreover, as discussed below, most studies of generational differences make no attempt to separate generation effects from age and period effects, making it difficult to draw strong conclusions about generational characteristics.
2 The idea of growing up during the ubiquity of smartphones is a common argument for purported generational differences, but there has been no evidence that the prevalence of any new technology will change a specific cohort of people more so than it changes a society.
Conclusion 4-1: Many of the research findings that have been attributed to generational differences may actually reflect shifting characteristics of work more generally or variations among people as they age and gain experiences.
REVIEW OF THE GENERATIONAL RESEARCH
The committee was asked to review research on generational issues in the workforce, the body of which has been growing steadily over the past 20 years. The research generally has focused on two types of questions: (1) Are today’s young workers different from today’s older workers because of a generation effect? and (2) Are young workers now different from young workers in the past? These are not easy questions to answer scientifically. For the first question, it is difficult to separate generation effects from age effects; for the second, it is difficult to separate generation effects from period effects.
Age, Period, and Cohort Effects
The concepts of age, period, and cohort are foundational for understanding whether issues in the workforce can be attributed to generational differences. Generations often are defined simply by their birth years, and generational researchers usually combine multiple birth years to define a cohort of people. When researchers look for generational differences, they need to be rigorous in their approach to distinguish cohort effects from age and period effects:
- Age effects are considered developmental influences resulting from biological factors or maturation that occur in all people. For example, age-related changes in muscle fibers create differences in physical strength, on average, between younger and older workers.
- Period effects are considered social influences that affect everyone in society. For example, while young adults today are more likely to have a cellphone than young adults 20 years ago, it also is true that all adults are more likely to have a cellphone today than was the case 20 years ago as a result of technological and societal shifts.
- Cohort (or generation) effects are considered social influences that predominantly affect only a certain group of people who share a defining characteristic. For example, cohorts have been defined by birth year, graduation year, or a shared experience such as working in the automotive industry during a particular period. A cohort effect, for example, might be observed in African Americans who were adolescents in the 1950s and 1960s. This cohort is likely to
have had much different experiences from those of other groups of people in the United States during that period, which could have shaped lasting differences between them and other groups.
The distinction between period and cohort effects can be difficult to appreciate, but it can begin to be statistically demonstrated with the right set of data on individuals over time. Events around the COVID-19 pandemic provide an interesting case in which both period and cohort effects may play out over time. For example, a period effect would be a shift in certain behaviors or attitudes (e.g., increased anxiety about health or job security) among all people, regardless of age, as a result of experiences during the pandemic. A cohort effect, on the other hand, would be changes in attitudes, behaviors, or outcomes for a limited group of people. For example, projected cohort effects resulting from COVID-19 experiences may be observed in groups defined by job sector, health condition, or socioeconomic status. The effects of COVID-19 on those who work in jobs in the service sector that require close personal contact are likely to be different from the effects on those with office jobs, who can adjust more easily to shifting levels of remote and virtual work. Cohort effects by generation that are significantly larger than general period effects are unlikely. While many young adults trying to enter the workforce during the pandemic face challenges and may have to weather long-term impacts on their careers and earnings, these consequences are likely to vary by type of occupation.
Limitations of Research Designs
The research designs used for generational research vary in their sophistication and their limitations. The vast majority of studies reviewed by the committee applied cross-sectional (i.e., single time point) designs to convenience samples.3 Some studies used cross-temporal meta-analyses, and other studies used qualitative methods. None of these methods can separate generation effects from age and period effects. Only a few studies used complex multilevel statistical models applied to nested datasets (i.e., data
3 In the context of this report, cross-sectional designs refer to methods of comparing people of different ages using an instrument (e.g., a survey) administered to a single sample at a single point in time; cross-temporal meta-analyses refer to a statistical approach of combining results from studies conducted at different points in time, usually with samples of a similar age (e.g., regularly administered surveys of high school seniors); and multilevel models applied to nested datasets, or age, period, and cohort (APC) models, refer to statistical methods that combine and analyze data on multiple individuals of different ages collected at different points in time (e.g., data from the General Social Survey) in an effort to separate out age, period, and cohort effects.
available from a series of studies or surveys conducted at different points in time) in order to separate the age, period, and cohort effects.
Cross-sectional analyses that use data from a single point in time to study workers of different ages (e.g., all workers in the year 2020) run the risk of confounding age and cohort effects. Because workers of different birth cohorts are also of different ages, observed differences could be due to age or cohort differences. In cross-temporal analyses that examine a single age group over time (e.g., 18- to 24-year-old workers in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s), cohort and period effects may be confounded. Because workers are being observed during different time periods, observed differences could be due to cohort or period differences. The qualitative studies reviewed also suffer from methodological limitations, including the use of purposive and convenience sampling, the risk of interpretation bias, and a failure to follow best practices in documenting data collection protocols and analysis processes. These shortcomings make it difficult to assess the value of the findings from qualitative studies.
These limitations weaken the internal validity4 of research designs in answering the question of whether generational differences exist in the workforce because observed differences among groups may instead be due to age or period effects. Many studies also offer insufficient external validity5 in that the findings are limited to a narrow setting and cannot be extended to all the members in a generation. The issue of representativeness relates to how well a sample reflects the population of interest. A convenience sample, which draws on only accessible members of a population (e.g., employees willing to fill out a survey), is not likely to be representative of generations. While a few studies have included steps to analyze data from nationally representative samples, the problem of generalizability remains largely unaddressed in the body of literature on generational attitudes in the workforce.
When these methods are used, researchers and users of the research need to understand the limitations of the methods and the available data and draw appropriate inferences from the findings.
Conclusion 4-2: The body of research on generations and generational differences in the workforce has grown considerably in the past 20 years. Despite this growth, much of the literature suffers from a mismatch between a study’s objectives and its research design and under-
4 Internal validity refers to the trustworthiness of the research design and methods for selecting and engaging participants. It also reflects the extent to which a study makes it possible to eliminate alternative explanations for any findings.
5 External validity refers to the extent to which findings from a study are generalizable and can apply to other settings.
lying data, which threatens both the internal and external validity of the work. The research designs and data sources rely too heavily on cross-sectional surveys and convenience samples, which limits the applicability and generalizability of findings.
Some researchers have employed research designs that apply multilevel models to nested datasets: statistical methods that combine and analyze data on multiple individuals of different ages collected at different points in time. These designs have significant advantages over other methods in distinguishing among age, period, and cohort effects. Such research has found little evidence for generational differences in work values. Rather, the evidence points to pronounced period effects, suggesting that changes are reflected in the workforce more broadly rather than in a specific generation of workers. However, since relatively few datasets with information relevant to workforce considerations are available for this type of analysis, the research questions that can be addressed are constrained.
Improving Future Research
Acknowledging the limitations of the existing generational literature on work-related attitudes and behaviors, the committee believes future research in this area will need some important modifications. Going forward, researchers should pay greater attention to their research designs and the questions that these designs can appropriately address.
Recommendation 4-1: Researchers interested in examining age-related, period-related, or cohort-related differences in workforce attitudes and behaviors should take steps to improve the rigor of their research designs and the interpretation of their findings. Such steps would include
- decreased use of cross-sectional designs with convenience samples;
- increased recognition of the fundamental challenges of separating age, period, and cohort effects;
- increased use of sophisticated approaches to separate age, period, and cohort effects while recognizing any constraints on the inferences that can be drawn from the results;
- greater attention to the use of samples that are representative of the target populations of interest;
- greater attention to the design of instruments (e.g., surveys) to ensure that the constructs of interest (i.e., measured attitudes and behaviors) have the same psychometric properties across time and age groups; and
- increased use of qualitative approaches with appropriate attention to documenting data collection protocols and analysis processes.
ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVES ON GENERATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
Inherent Appeal and Biases
Despite the fact that research has largely not produced evidence in support of generational differences, there is an inherent appeal to the notion that groups of people born at different times have certain attributes and values. Humans are inclined to categorize and generalize; these tendencies can be useful when deciding whether a situation is dangerous or simplifying a large amount of information. Social categorization of oneself and others—such as into generational categories—is a common manifestation of this process.
The notion of generations has become strongly socially constructed; that is, generational differences purportedly exist because they are frequently acknowledged in various contexts. In this sense, generational labels (e.g., baby boomers, millennials) have taken on a life of their own. Given their socially constructed nature, these labels can shape people’s perceptions of themselves and other people, regardless of whether the underlying stereotypes are accurate.
While the concept of generations and the idea of generational differences can be useful in some instances, they can also lead to prejudice, bias, and stereotyping. People born in the same year or span of years may have some similar experiences, but they may also have very different experiences, depending on such factors as socioeconomic status, geographic location, education level, gender, and race/ethnicity. Some recent workplace research has shown that people’s perceptions of generational stereotypes can influence how they perform and how they interact with others. Additional research is needed to fully understand the use and impact of generational stereotypes in the workplace.
Because generational beliefs and perceptions are not likely to reflect true attributes of members of any birth cohorts, they should be studied as generational stereotypes and biases. Areas ripe for research include examining how perceptions about generational qualities develop, what opportunities and challenges these perceptions present in the workplace, and what the implications are for organizations to address any prevalent misconceptions.
Multiple Influences on Worker Attributes
An additional task for researchers is to identify alternatives to the theory and research designs applied to date in the study of generational issues in the workforce. Future research should seek to examine the multiple influences that could be expected to affect similarities and differences among workers. The committee offers three perspectives for thinking about variations among workers: (1) lifespan development theories, (2) changes in the work context, and (3) the aging workforce. We recognize that further research may demonstrate other perspectives to be of value for understanding workforce issues. A lifespan development perspective considers the impact of historical events on human development while also stressing the importance of biological and cultural factors in explaining differences among people. This perspective differs from the traditional generational approach in acknowledging that people are influenced not only by broad historical events, but also by life events that are idiosyncratic to individuals.
A research perspective on changes in work context focuses on social and technical changes in the environments in which work takes place that occur as a function of broad social and economic adjustments. Research that takes context into account is useful for understanding how changes in work context drive different behavior patterns.
A research perspective on the aging workforce focuses on the emergent norms, practices, and behaviors that develop as a function of shifts in workforce demographics. Pointing to generational issues has masked real challenges in the management of a more age-diverse workforce. Neither generation nor age has been shown to be a reliable predictor of work-related outcomes. Research that considers job experiences and the cultural influences of an age-diverse workforce in addition to worker characteristics can be useful for understanding different behavior patterns.
Recommendation 5-1: Researchers interested in examining relationships between work-related values and attitudes and subsequent behaviors and interactions in the workplace should endeavor to identify and better understand alternative explanations for observed outcomes that supplement explanations associated with generations. This effort would include attention to generational stereotypes and biases that might exist among workers. Research should also seek to better understand the multiple factors that influence attributes of individual workers, including aging in the workplace, and the changes in the work context that affect the behaviors of all workers.
GUIDANCE FOR WORKFORCE MANAGEMENT
In the course of this study, the committee reviewed many documents addressing concerns about managing across generations in the workforce or managing a new generation of workers. Employers have asked what types of policies and practices will be effective for recruiting, retaining, and promoting job satisfaction for today’s workers. Some discussions center around the idea that employers should take generational stereotypes into account when developing policies and practices. However, while dividing the workforce into generations may have appeal, doing so is not strongly supported by science and is not useful for workforce management. Research has shown there is much variation in worker needs and performance within all age groups.
Conclusion 6-1: The notion of generational differences will continue to be appealing in the absence of compelling alternative explanations for real or perceived differences among people in the workplace. However, many of the stereotypes about generations result from imprecise use of the terminology in the popular literature and recent research, and thus cannot adequately inform workforce management decisions. Further, categorizing a group of workers by observable attributes can lead to overgeneralizations and improper assumptions about those workers, perhaps even discrimination.
Tailoring employment policies and practices to a specific group defined by birth year is unlikely to meet the needs of all members of that group, and may exclude members of another group for whom those policies and practices would be valuable. Moreover, when age, generational categories, or stereotypes about generations are used in the workplace to inform decisions or policies, the employer may be in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and various state and local laws on age discrimination.6 Although these laws are based on age and do not explicitly address generational categories or stereotypes, a court could find that an employer who made a decision based on an employee’s generation was using generation as a proxy for age. Employment decisions based on stereotypes about generations—such as refusing to put workers of a certain generation in a specific job position—could be particularly vulnerable to ADEA claims because Congress intended this act to combat pervasive stereotypes and stigmatization of older workers.
6 As discussed further in report, the ADEA and some state laws apply only to workers 40 and over, while other state laws prohibit discriminating against workers of any age.
In its information gathering, the committee found that many employers struggle with recruiting and retaining talent. More specifically, we read about unfilled jobs in many sectors, notably the health care and service sectors, and shortfalls in recruitment targets for the military. There also have been challenges with turnover, including a rise in the number of employees eligible to retire, which have presumably led to the need for employers to reexamine their recruitment and retention strategies. Some evidence suggests that the changing nature of work is responsible for many of the concerns expressed by employers. Employers may need to revise their policies and practices in order to respond to these changes.
Recommendation 6-1: In considering approaches to workforce management, employers and managers should focus on the needs of individual workers and the changing contexts of work in relation to job requirements instead of relying on generational stereotypes. Employers can be guided in making any needed changes to employment practices and policies by a thorough assessment of changes in their own work environment, job requirements, and human capital.
The goal of recruitment is to identify candidates whose preferences, skills, and abilities match the needs of the organization and the requirements of a specific job. People increasingly are entering and leaving the workforce at different life stages both for personal reasons and as a result of social and economic shifts in labor demands. Therefore, employers need to develop recruitment strategies that appeal to a range of people who are likely to be viable candidates. Indeed, many employers see the increasing diversity of the U.S. population as an opportunity to expand their recruitment pool and to match their workforce to their customer base. A diverse workforce can also have social and economic benefits for organizations.
Research has shown that an inclusive environment with attention to employee treatment and professional development reduces turnover. Steps taken to help employees feel safe, respected, and influential on the job and believe they have the ability to balance work and life needs can promote employee engagement with an organization. Further, the demand for continuous learning on the job has risen, driven in part by both broad and discrete changes to the organization of work—notably technological advances and hiring patterns that have led to institutional knowledge gaps between younger and older workers. Developing effective training programs requires attention to the needs of the organization and its employees, as well as the constraints within which the organization operates.
Training needs also have extended to the skills necessary to manage a range of workers with varying characteristics. While there are benefits to having a diverse workforce, there are also challenges entailed in addressing
the needs of a range of workers and ensuring that this diversity produces the desired outcomes for organizations. There is no universal approach to increasing diversity and employee engagement; organizations have unique cultures requiring specific strategies that work in their particular context. The best advice and research evidence highlight the benefits of assessing one’s own culture, engaging all levels of management in the assessment and the solutions thereby identified, and developing initiatives that go beyond procedural checklists to transform organizational culture as necessary.
The goal of effective workforce management is not to find permanent answers to recruitment and retention challenges. The nature of these challenges changes over time. As a result of the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the recruiting challenges of January 2020 were substantially different from those just 4 months later, in May. Moreover, employees’ needs and values change, and the missions of employers may adjust with broader societal changes. In addition, possible solutions are constantly evolving. For example, recently developed teleconferencing tools have enhanced the effectiveness of remote working and facilitated flexible work schedules and locations. Organizations must then evaluate the new policies and procedures they undertake to determine their impact on organizational effectiveness and the extent to which employees’ needs are met. Thus, the committee recommends that organizations develop effective ways of regularly identifying changes in the work environment and employees’ needs, determining available solutions to these problems, and evaluating those solutions.
Recommendation 6-2: Employers should have processes in place for considering and reevaluating on a regular basis an array of options for workforce management, such as policies for recruiting, training and development, diversity and inclusion, and retention. The best options will be consistent with the organization’s mission, employees, customer base, and job requirements and will be flexible enough to adjust to different worker needs and work contexts as they change.