Multigenerational Workplace: Part 1 – Stereotypes and Meta-Stereotypes

11 mins read

This article is the 1st in a series on multigenerational workplaces, and is written to introduce key concepts such as the “quad-gen” workplace, stereotyping, and meta-stereotyping.

Intergenerational Conflict and Stereotyping

Intergenerational conflict has been a staple of human experience for thousands of years. Throughout an individual’s lifetime, their experiences, losses, gains, and more will impact their value systems and processes, and though this is an individual experience, generalizations are often made about those older and younger than oneself based on one’s own experience throughout history.

This said, how real are generational divides? Today we are experiencing what some call a “quad-gen” workplace, meaning that there are four generations currently in the workplace. The 4 defined generations are:1

      1. Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964)
      2. Generation X (b. 1965-1980)
      3. Millennials (b. 1981-2000)
      4. Generation Z (b. 2001-2020)

*Note: the cut-off dates for generations vary with publication and study, these are general and not to be taken as definitive.

When we talk about generational divides, it’s important to recognize the cultural precedent of intergenerational conflict. Conflict, as we have mentioned in other articles, is not a bad thing! It is individuals coming together with different sets of boundaries to seek resolution. On a generational scale, this might mean individuals with different life experiences, different cultural milestones on which their experience is based, etc. These may impact the individual, but do not define them.

Where intergenerational conflict becomes complicated, is in stereotyping. Stereotyping generations tangles up webs of communication as the one stereotyping may no longer believe they need to listen to another’s perspective, because they think already know it. It is not the differences in experience that truly create communication errors and tension, but rather the belief in these differences.2 Not every employee within the same age group will have the same experiences at the same time, and yet stereotyping implies that this is the case, and that knowing an individual’s generational label is the same as understanding their motivations, vices, and virtues.

Additionally, there is a relatively new concept which further complicates intergenerational conflict and cooperation: meta-stereotyping. Where stereotypes are the impact of beliefs which people hold regarding other age groups, meta-stereotypes are what we think others believe about us based on our age group. This means that the articles and headlines we have all seen on stereotyping generations are not only impacting others’ view of a generation, but the way that generation believes they are being viewed! For example, studies show that people’s stereotypes of older workers were things like “responsible,” “hard-working,” and “mature,” while that same group of older workers believed others saw them as “boring,” “stubborn,” and “grumpy.”

When both the stereotyping of others and meta-stereotyping of the self are occurring in the workplace, employees’ ability to openly communicate is diminished greatly, because they are so wrapped up in what they believe of others and what they think others believe of them. With assumptions flying around the room, it’s difficult to have a genuine conversation in which those stereotypes are set aside. Studies have shown that both younger and older workers assume others view them more negatively than they actually do, meaning those workers will be more defensive and combatant, rather than prepared to come together in resolution.2 Not to mention, you know what they say when you assume…

Making A Multigenerational Workforce Work

How can you make a multigenerational workplace work? Here are 3 tips to help you create an office space of open communication, and intergenerational understanding.2,3

1. Talk Openly About Stereotypes and Meta-stereotypes

This may seem like a no-brainer, but remember that it’s important! In media, we are bombarded with articles, videos, news stories, and more that seem to be actively trying to create generational divides and misunderstandings. By having an open conversation in the workplace about the harmful impact of stereotypes, and the very real presence of meta-stereotypes, you will give your employees and colleagues space to be seen and heard as individuals rather than a representative of their generation.

Stereotypes impact how individuals relate to one another, and this generates unconscious biases which can ultimately become self-fulfilling prophecies! By having the conversation about stereotypes, you can prevent these prophecies from ever existing, let alone being fulfilled, in your office.

2. Leverage Everyone’s Strengths as a Team

By including everyone in your office, of every generation present, and delegating tasks or activities based on their individual strengths, you will develop a stronger, more cohesive team! These cross-generational teams will be the most effective with open communication, as ideas from different life-perspectives and experiences can help direct you to your goal.

Additionally, by drawing everyone together as a team, you are working towards eliminating the “us” vs “them” mentality that generational divides can create! Rather than this antagonistic mindset, you will be encouraging a “we” mentality, in which the team has shared goals and successes, regardless of generational divide.

3. Be Open to Feedback

Discussion and communication in the office Discussion and communication in the office, teamwork, brainstorming. Vector illustration. Teamwork stock vectorAs with any conversation about open communication and understanding in the workplace, being open to feedback is paramount in establishing connection throughout your business. When you keep communication open, you emphasize that there is no division of generation in ability to speak up and share perspectives, ideas, concerns, etc. Establishing a generationally equal workplace, in which every generation is heard and appreciated, starts from the top. When you take those steps to hear everyone, consciously question the stereotypes attached to generations, and move forward in understanding the value of different life experiences, you are setting the example for the rest of your business to follow.

Are The Differences Really So Different? By remembering these tips and remaining open-minded regarding stereotypes and the meta-stereotypes that exist within our culture, you will minimize their impact on your workplace’s community and communication. The differences that we as a culture have placed upon generations are based on living at different stages of life, having experienced different cultural milestones at different fundamental moments in life, and ultimately, being individual people with individual thoughts, experiences, and perspectives – but they need not be divisive! Each generation is, at its heart, a stage in life. This means that while the differences may seem enormous between the incoming Generation Z and established Baby Boomers, both generations are merely different stages in the life cycle.

Factors like experience (both good and bad), technology, cultural movements, and more can impact worldviews, but at our heart we are all just people. At any point in history, older generations are likely to have been viewed as resistant to change, middle generations as hardworking and driving society forward, and younger generations as lazy and wanting things to change.

Take the time out of your day today to examine your own stereotypes, meta and otherwise. What do you see when you see your coworkers or employees? What do you think they see when they recognize the generation you fall into? How can you move forward with recognizing those stereotypes, and engaging in genuine conversation with the individual rather than the assumption?

Please join us for the next article in this series, in which we will start at the top with Baby Boomers in the Workplace, the stereotypes surrounding them, and how to open those channels of communication.

Download this resource Multigenerational Workplace: Part 1 – Stereotypes and Meta-Stereotypes.

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1 “Generational Differences in the Workplace [Infographic]” Purdue University. https://www.purdueglobal.edu/education-partnerships/generational-workforce-differences-infographic/

2 King, Eden, et. al. “Generational Differences at Work are Small. Thinking They’re Big Affects our Behaviour.” Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/08/generational-differences-at-work-are-small-thinking-theyre-big-affects-our-behavior

3 Laker, Benjamin. “Five Ways to Lead the Multi-Generational Workplace Effectively.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/benjaminlaker/2021/05/11/five-ways-to-manage-the-quad-gen-workplace-effectively/?sh=544331aa6ba9

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