Generational Differences in the Workplace?: Let's Ask the Managers!

Generational Differences in the Workplace?: Let's Ask the Managers!

Franziska Eberz (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9906-7.ch006
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The existing literature on generational differences in work attitudes has so far relied strongly on generational stereotypes and provided mixed empirical results. Instead of studying individual differences, the chapter takes a human resource management (HRM) approach and explores generational differences that managers have experienced in three European countries. In addition, this chapter examines the HRM practices the organizations have implemented as a response to potential generational differences. Findings show that, especially when it comes to work-life balance, motivation, careers, and preferred leader qualities, generational differences are apparent. However, teamwork attitudes do not seem to be influenced by generational effects. The results suggest that among other impact factors, especially the national context and life stage may cause differing preferences in work attitudes. Furthermore, it seems that many companies have already started to take measures to adapt to the varying needs of a multigenerational workforce; however, they still lack a comprehensive approach.
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In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in the management of different generations in the workplace, especially among human resource management (HRM) practitioners. The popularity of the topic is reflected by a growing body of publications. The prevailing belief is “that important inter-generational differences exist among workers and that these differences provide challenges to managers in effectively managing their workforce” (Benson & Brown, 2011, p. 1843). According to the literature, generational differences in work attitudes, values, and behaviors affect all fields of HRM, including recruitment and retention, training, rewards, career development, working arrangements, and management style (Parry & Urwin, 2017). As a result, an increasing number of publications encourage managers to lead, motivate, and reward their employees differently depending on the generation the workers belong to (Kupperschmidt, 2000).

It is surprising that “despite the popularity of this topic, however, there has been relatively little academic work either to confirm or refute popular generational stereotypes” (Lyons, Duxbury, & Higgins, 2007, p. 339). In addition to the scarce academic literature, the field of generational research lacks in consistency, as findings of existing empirical studies are mixed and somewhat contradictory. While several scholars found support for the purported generational differences in various variables, including work values (e.g., Campbell, Twenge, & Campbell, 2017; Smith, Halinski, Gover, & Duxbury, 2018), leadership expectations and behaviors (e.g., Sessa, Kabacoff, Deal, & Brown, 2007), and personality traits (e.g., Twenge & Campbell, 2008), others identified only few, if any, differences between distinct generations of workers (e.g., Costanza & Finkelstein, 2015; Zabel, Biermeier-Hanson, Baltes, Early, & Shepard, 2017), challenging the existence of real generational differences in the workplace. Giancola (2006) suggests that the popular notion of a generational gap in today’s workforce is “more myth than reality” (p. 32) and basing management practices on such myths could lead to adverse effects (Becton, Walker, & Jones-Farmer, 2014). Generational interaction can be seen as positive or negative (Arsenault, 2004). On the one hand, it can lead to new ideas and increased innovation, while on the other hand, it may also provoke unnecessary conflicts due to misunderstandings between employees of different generations. Therefore, more multigenerational research is needed to provide further empirical evidence that is required to either support or refute the popular generational stereotypes.

The purpose of this chapter is to contribute to the limited empirical research on generational differences in the workplace by providing further insights into how employees of distinct generations differ in their work attitudes, especially regarding work-life balance, motivation, leadership, career patterns, and teamwork. It also contributes in its approach. In contrast to the majority of previous studies, the present research examines the topic of generational differences in the workplace from an organizational perspective and aims at exploring how organizations perceive the effects of potential generational differences and how they manage them. Hence, instead of utilizing data from different generations of workers, data was gathered through in-depth interviews with twelve human resource (HR) managers in three European countries. A better understanding of the phenomenon of generational differences at work will allow organizations to minimize potential negative implications of such dissimilarities and to exploit the full potential of a multigenerational workforce.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Work-Life Balance: A concept that describes how a person weighs his or her time between work and non-work activities.

Intrinsic Motivation: A person’s behavior based on non-tangible rewards that are inherent to the individual. Hence, the motivation for performing a certain task emerges from within a person, creating a feeling of satisfaction, pleasure, or joy.

Extrinsic Motivation: A person’s behavior driven by tangible rewards that are external to the individual. Hence, the individual performs a task because of its consequences and outcomes. These can refer to materialistic rewards (e.g., salary) or other visible motivators, such as status, power, or opportunities for advancement.

Age Effects: Changes in people’s attitudes, values, and behavior as well as physiological changes that occur as they move through the life cycle, independently from their year of birth. Hence, age effects result from the process of individuals’ biological and psychological aging.

Generation: A sociological concept that describes an observable group of individuals who are born within the same temporal and socio-cultural framework and who have experienced the same formative events during adolescence, resulting in a common set of values, attitudes, and behaviors.

Cohort Analysis: A demographical approach that aims at examining differences in values, attitudes, and behaviors among distinct generational cohorts (i.e., groups of individuals that are described by precise ranges of birth years).

Period Effects: Present environmental influences that affect values and attitudes of all individuals, regardless their generation. Within the work context, such impacts may refer to fundamental changes in the reward structure or on the labor market.

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