Opinion: it's time to quit using such generational and ageist labels as "millennial" and "baby boomer" in the workplace 

By Ashley Bamberg, Jean McCarthy & Noreen Heraty, University of Limerick

The British Army recently made headlines with its recruitment poster campaign, targeting the "self-belief" of "Me Me Me Millenials" and the "compassion" of "Snowflakes". It said that the campaign was aimed at 16 to 25 year olds, which "looked beyond stereotypes", but we disagree. 

Many consider labels such as "snowflake" to be "derogatory" or "name-calling". Fundamentally, though, we believe these labels to be age stereotypes, since they are used to refer to values and attributes of an entire cohort (or "generation") of employees, based solely on their year of birth. Any generalised beliefs individuals have about members of particular groups in society are categorised as stereotypes.

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The stereotyping of individuals or a group of individuals based on their age is of real concern in today’s workplace. As the workforce becomes increasingly age diverse, there is potential for age stereotypes, age prejudice, and ultimately age discrimination (the trifecta of ageism) to become even more entrenched in the workplace. Across 28 countries in the European Union, a higher percentage of people stated that they had experienced prejudice against them due to their age, than due to their gender, race or ethnicity. 

What are age stereotypes?

Described by Walter Lippman in 1921 as "pictures in the head", this expression has evolved into a metaphor for stereotypes as mental reproductions of reality. Stereotype research has suggested that age is one of the first characteristics on which we evaluate others. In the work context, age stereotypes are beliefs and expectations about workers based purely on their age and which are often erroneous, unrepresentative of reality, and highly resistant to change.

Workers in the youngest and oldest age groups were most likely to have experienced age-based workplace discrimination

What age stereotypes exist in the workplace?

There is now extensive research to demonstrate that five dominant stereotypes of "older" workers exist, and these associate mostly negative work related characteristics to this group; the poor performance stereotype, the resistance to change stereotype, the lower ability to learn stereotype, the shorter tenure stereotype, and the more costly stereotype. In sum, "older" workers are stereotyped as being less economically beneficial than "younger" workers.

But where is the empirical evidence to support these assumptions?  For example, one of the most widely cited stereotypes about older workers is that they are more resistant to change, and consequently less adaptable and less innovative when compared with their younger counterparts. A recent meta-analysis, that included 98 empirical studies concluded, that age (and, indeed, tenure) was not negatively related to innovation-related behaviour, and that older workers do not engage in less creative and innovation-related behaviour than their younger colleagues.

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A review of ageism across the European Union noted that younger adults were similar targets of age discrimination as were older adults, though to a lesser degree. This echoes earlier research which found that workers in the youngest and oldest age groups were most likely to have experienced age-based workplace discrimination. Here, younger workers reported being the target of negative attitudes and being overlooked for promotion.

In recent years, we have witnessed an increasing reference to generations as "an identifiable group that shares birth years, age, location and significant life events at critical developmental stages", and the popularity of using this generational lens to categorise employees across organisations. Much of the discussion has focused on beliefs; in other words, stereotypes, about the differences that exist among these generations at work.

There is a dearth of empirical evidence to suggest that any significant differences among these generations actually exist

"Veterans" (born c.1925-1942), also referred to as "Traditionalists", and the "Silent Generation" are said to be extremely loyal and patriotic employees and to build vast stores of tacit knowledge specific to their organisations. "Baby Boomers" (born c.1943-1960) are said to be self-reliant, individualistic, competitive, and often, ruthless in the workplace. They are also considered loyal to their employers, with some even being considered "workaholics". "Generation X" (born c.1961-1981) workers are considered to be distrustful of authority, government, and even organisations, and more loyal to their profession rather than to their employers. They are perceived to be strong problem-solvers and good communicators.

"Generation Y" (born c.1982-2000), or "Millennials", are the recent focus of considerable research and media attention. Millennials are believed to be more entrepreneurial than previous generations, work well alone, but better together, and are more likely to "rock the boat"; they are stereotyped as needy, impatient, and lacking in focus and direction, often having high stimuli needs at work. They are also considered to be tech savvy, feedback orientated, appreciative of change and flexible. For further discussion on generational stereotypes, see this study by the authors.

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However, these categorisations are largely socially constructed, and represent another form of age stereotyping into what are essentially specific homogenous groupings. Despite the growing attention on generations, there remains a dearth of empirical evidence to suggest that any significant differences among these generations actually exist, particularly in relation to workplace behaviour, values and preferences. For example, "Millennials" are said to place high importance on activities outside of work, viewing work as less central to their livelihoods. However, evidence for these same views have been found for "Generation X" as well as "Baby Boomers". 

The impact of age stereotypes in the workplace

Ageist attitudes in the workplace have the potential to create significant barriers for individual workers. They can affect occupational self-efficacy and psychological well-being, as well as the decisions which are taken to recruit, promote, re-train or dismiss an employee. We know, for example, that the categorisation of workers as "older" has a negative impact on their employability, not only in terms of their access to training, development and promotion opportunities, but also in terms of re-entering the labour market following a period of unemployment. Younger workers also find it difficult to access employment and re-employment opportunities due to age-related attitudinal barriers, and increasingly are being pilloried as attention seeking, needy and lacking in either proactivity or resilience.  

Generational labels are just another form of age stereotyping – and it’s time to stop using them.

The takeaway

Managing an increasingly age diverse workforce presents a significant challenge for leaders and organisations worldwide. As workers of varying ages interact with each other on a daily basis, we are under increasing pressure to deal with the presence and impact of ageist attitudes in the workplace.

Given that ageist attitudes have the potential to affect each and every one of us across the lifespan as we age, any lack of attention to combatting ageism in the workplace may suggest an implicit acceptance that ageism is inevitable, and give longevity to what has been identified as the pernicious problem of ageism today. To this end, we must understand that generational labels are just another form of age stereotyping – and it’s time to stop using them.

Ashley Bamberg is a PhD Scholar within the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick. Dr Jean McCarthy and Dr Noreen Heraty research and lecture in the areas of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management within the Deptartment of Work and Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ