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We review new Paper by Lyons and Schweitzer

by on August 17, 2016

We are always pleased to hear of new publications that share a similar outlook on the issues of generational identity, especially when one of the authors is previous guest blog author, Sean Lyons!

Lyons, Sean T., and Linda Schweitzer. “A Qualitative Exploration of Generational Identity: Making Sense of Young and Old in the Context of Today’s Workplace.Work, Aging and Retirement (2016): Online first


Much of the extant research concerning generations in the workplace relies on objective definitions of generational groups based on birth years. This research has produced highly mixed and contradictory results, raising significant questions about the legitimacy of generations as a workplace phenomenon. In this qualitative study, we sought a more nuanced and subjective conceptualization of generation as a basis for social and individual identity in organizations.Through in-depth interviews with 105 Canadians, we examined the degree to which people use generation as a basis for social identity, why people identify with generational groups (or not), and whether there are age-related patterns in generational identification. The results suggest that people do make use of generation as a social category; but some do not identify with any generational group and others are unsure of their identification. Furthermore, generational labels such as “Baby Boomers,” “Generation X,” and “Millennials” are not universally connected to people’s sense of generational identity, with younger participants being less likely to identify with a label. Rather, generation is used as a conceptual frame to make sense of “young” and “old” within a given historical context. We recommend discarding the presumption of homogeneity within age cohorts and allowing for a diversity of orientations toward
generational prototypes. This suggests that age cohort alone is insufficient as a means of operationalizing generations for the purposes of research.

It won’t surprise regular readers that we agree with much of what is written here, as many of these issues are those we have explored in our own research and publications.  I might be wrong but I think this might be one of the first interview studies I have seen that sets out to unpack how individuals make sense of generational identities at work.  Here they sought to answer three research questions: (a) do people identify with generational groups? (b) do people identify with the generational group that is commonly
ascribed to their year of birth? and (c) why do people identify with a
generational group or not?

Using thematic analysis, they present an interesting review of findings in respect to these questions.  However I was less sure in the conclusion of the proposed disconnect between ‘media rhetoric’ and the talk used by their participants in the interviews.  Rather I would see the consumption of ‘media rhetoric’ as readily available to these (and all) individuals, rather than necessarily separating their accounts as representing something more ‘real’ and ‘psychological’.  I think this point is actually made as the discussion continues so it may just be my reading and a question of semantics!  I think in the end we agree that the media rhetoric has to be taken seriously and is impacting understandings and experiences in the workplace.

The paper usefully debates the fluidity and actualization of generational identity at work – and therefore provides a useful foil to the media coverage which suggests generational tension and differences are a fixed, inevitable problem (though of course it rather spoils the consultant’s party to suggest otherwise).  There is also useful discussion of the broader distinctions made between ‘older’ and ‘younger’, rather than the much more specific (and overused) labels such as millennial and baby boomer.

The paper offers a very useful and accessible discussion of generations and empirical consideration of key issues in the workplace.  It reinforces others (including our own) calls to unpack and problematise notions of generations rather than making blind assumptions about what these are and the differences between them.



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