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Generational stereotypes …. again!

by on October 17, 2014

Earlier this week an Australian TV show was under fire for asking “name something people think is a woman’s job”, and reported here in the Sydney Morning Herald, widely criticized for counting as correct answers that included cooking, washing clothes, cleaning, nursing, doing the dishes, hairdressing and domestic duties.

Yet stereotypes about generational categories continue unabated and often with very little reaction.  Here for example is an article about ‘differences’ in work-life balance in the Huffington Post.  This includes broad statements such as “international travel is also important to Millennials” and “Millennials are also happiest in the workplace when they feel they are part of a team”.

Now obviously there is a difference in the tone of this article and the aforementioned quiz but the generalization and stereotyping going on here might not be that different.  Not least because of what these statements infer about either other generational groups OR about the limitations of the particular group under consideration.

Here is another example, from “Chief Learning Officer” Magazine: “Millennials have unique characteristics — just as every generation does. They were the first generation born with technology; it is like breathing air to them. As a result, they are able to easily adapt to and apply new technologies”.

As regular readers will know, we at Age at Work would contest the simplistic representation of ‘unique characteristics’ which here are presented as overriding other factors such as individual personality.  The generalization of this group as ‘naturally’ technologically skilled not only underplays the education process but also effectively rules out this ‘talent’ as being possessed by other groups.

Both the theoretical basis of generations (especially the means by which key events are believed to produce key psychological differences in group members) AND the empirical evidence of such differences is hotly debated.  Yet time and time again we see the promotion of generations as a means of understanding differences at work, often conflated with chronological or other definitions of age.

As Deal and colleagues concluded in 2010 findings regarding millennials are ‘confusing at best and contradictory at worst’ (2010, p. 191)

(Deal, J.J., Altman, D.G., & Rogelberg, S.G. (2010). Millennials at Work: What We Know and What We Need to Do (If Anything). Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 191-199.)

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