Bridging the gaps between generations is important as today’s work places become increasingly multi-generational, with people continuing to work later in life and new faces entering the work force every day.
Every generation comes with a set of stereotypes—many of them unflattering.
Katrina Burch is an industrial organization psychologist at Western Kentucky University. She’s also a millennial, a member of the group born from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s.
“With millennials I’m sure you’ve heard what those stereotypes are,” Burch said. “They’re lazy, they only care about themselves, they’re entitled. These stereotypes are pervasive, just like we think of older workers as not being able to use technology.”
Burch said all generations encounter work-place stereotypes, including today’s older workers and today’s youngest workers, known as Generation Z. But she adds that psychological studies have yet to show whether those stereotypes are valid.
“These are things that we talk about and that we read about, but they are not necessarily empirically supported by scientific evidence. And a lot of the research is mixed. Sometimes they find generational differences, sometimes they don’t.”
Burch said some generational trends come from the historical context in which a cohort grew.
“With the baby boomers it was the prosperity following World War II,” Burch said. “With millennials it’s that we all have technology at our fingertips. I think the conflicts between generations are going to be somewhat similar across time, it’s just everyone has these different socio-historical contexts in which we grow up that have helped shaped who we are.”
Instead, Burch said the real danger of stereotypes is letting them develop into self-fulfilling prophecies.
“When you start to internalize those stereotypes, you’re more likely to create whatever outcomes are associated with those stereotypes.”
Bowling Green lawyer and millennial Ian Loos said he worried about entering the professional world as a young person.
“My biggest fear was just being wrong,” Loos said. “I was cleaning out my office at home a few weeks ago and I found a notepad from when I interviewed with the firm I’m currently at, and it had a bunch of questions. It had a little cheat sheet with all of the attorneys’ names, where they went to school. Anything I could learn about them, I had it written down.”
Loos is now a member of Bowling Green Young Professionals, a Warren County group that connects young workers with experienced employers. He said stories and stereotypes about older and younger workers exaggerate the bad.
“When you’re newly hired, they don’t want you to be a failure,” Loos said. “It comes down to negative experiences being broadcasted more frequently than positive experiences. I’ve only ever had positive experiences with any place that I’ve worked.”
Jacqueline Rowe, another millennial member of Bowling Green Young Professionals, said she also worried about entering the workforce after college.
“It’s one thing to come out of [Western Kentucky University] and you’ve got your diploma and you’ve got all the book knowledge, but putting the rubber to the road, and making it practical, putting it into real life, that can be hard, “ Rowe said. “Just because you’re done at WKU doesn’t mean you’re done.”
Rowe said her older coworkers don’t treat her as a stereotypical millennial. Instead, she said her interactions with older colleagues have been rewarding.
“I find that the older generation, they have a lot to share. And in my experience they’ve always been more than happy and very much willing to share, like they want to impart their wisdom and help form and shape the upcoming generation.”
Rowe and Loos both said young people who focus on communicating, keeping an open mind, and working hard will have no problem overcoming stereotypes.
“I feel like it’s up to each one of us to dispel those myths,” Rowe said. “Don’t give them a reason to kind of cast those myths on you, whether you’re Gen Z, millennial--really any generation. You just kind of have to take it into your own hands to work above those misconceptions.”
“That’s the best way to dispel any stereotype, face-to-face interaction,” Loos said. “When you meet someone from that demographic, face-to-face, it’s oftentimes really clear to see that all people of this generation are not like that, or all people of this demographic are not like that.”
Professor Burch said members of all generations share four key workplace needs.
“Autonomy, connection, competence, and respect. And really focusing on those unifying factors can maybe help bridge some of these gaps."