Generational Work Ethics

Digressing before I get started, I begin this post by reporting that Melissa and I read many newspapers, magazines and professional publications to stay current. Melissa subscribes to and promptly reads many psychology journals and publications. This post was prompted by a January 2017 Monitor on Psychology article synopsis reporting findings from a meta-analysis of 77 studies over 40 years about work ethic for various generations. The research reported in the Journal of Business and Psychology found no significant differences in the work of three generational cohorts as to the “Protestant work ethic” – the notion that success comes from hard work, and, that work is central to life. A meta-analysis is an assessment of past studies to get “big picture” results. A large scale review of data sets in this fashion examines the findings of research on similar topics – this one being related to whether one generation or another works harder. In this study, the much maligned Millennial Generation (born between 1977 and 1995) appear equally committed to work as Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1976) and Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). Why do I write about this? Because there is much in the popular press and within the business world about Millennials being “lazy” or not wanting to work as hard as others from older generations. Well, according to this large scale study the Millennials report being onboard with a strong work ethic. Our own, small company experience, has been that some do, some don’t. It is an individual issue, not a global one. Too often in business, quick answers and off the cuff assessments are made which are misleading. The search for the easy answer or magic tool is never ending. But, as this major scientific study points out, there are few magic, global statements that are universally true. This extends to litigators who often seek solid, hard and fast rules for jury selection. Such shortcuts usually lead, sooner or later, down the wrong path. Frequently, I have heard derogatory comments by our clients/attorneys regarding Millenials – which are proven wrong once these Millenials start talking in deliberations. So, with this recent study in mind, consider this post a reminder that things are not as easy as they seem; stereotyping is dangerous. One has to look beyond the macro level to evaluate the micro level where businesses, or juries, work.

Stereotyping, although it is commonplace, is never a good idea. I will repeat: Stereotyping is never a good idea. Social psychologists, beginning with Dr. Gordon Allport in 1948, have studied stereotypes and their negative impact on decision making in a multitude of contexts. Research on stereotyping has, in general terms, revealed that stereotypes contain a “kernel of truth” but they are highly likely to be inaccurate when applied to a particular individual. While stereotypes may provide a fast way to judge someone, they are fraught with errors due to the fact that not everyone who falls within a certain demographic category is alike. Many of my clients use stereotypes to select and de-select jurors. When they ask me questions such as, “Are women better for my case than men?” I answer, “I don’t know. It depends on the individual women and the individual men who are on the jury.” Along similar lines, it has now become in vogue to categorize people, and jurors, in terms of their generational membership. Included in these unscientific characterizations are stereotypical statements such as “Baby Boomers are hard workers,” “Gen Xers are slackers,” and “Millennials are spoiled whiners who have been rewarded for merely participating.” These characterizations might as well be based on horoscopes! The reality is that some Baby Boomers are hard working, while others are not, with most of them being average; some Gen Xers are slackers, while others are not, with most of them being average; and some Millennials are spoiled whiners, while others are not, with most of them being average in their tendency to whine. As a social psychologist who has had the opportunity to supervise numerous Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, I believe individual personality characteristics are far more predictive of job success than the year when someone was born. In fact, I have had many more problem workers in my Baby Boomer generation than any other I have encountered. Some of my best employees have been Millennials. Indeed, I find them a pleasure to supervise! Needless to say, I was delighted to read a scientific study that confirmed what I knew to be true: There are NO generational differences in people’s work ethic. People from all generations are either hard workers or not. Once again, stereotyping has created a difference among people based on faulty information. So, the next time you think it is acceptable to judge someone based on their membership in a particular generation, watch out. You are probably going to be wrong.

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