Are there really Generational gaps?

The great debate about generational gaps are still taking place today.  A simple google search presents hundreds of thousands of results about how we should “categorize” people based upon their age.  Beliefs are a funny phenomenon.  When we do not have a belief about something, we will likely accept anything that seems to fit. Even when it might not fit exactly right.  I think of this like a hole in the ground.  We can fill it up with dirt but it never fits perfectly back in the hole.  The dirt takes up the space however not as it did.  This new belief is then reinforced by others who carry the same beliefs.  Thus, here we are, believing that generational gaps exist.  But do they? 

Have you ever noticed we are more likely to find our horoscope to be true if we read it in the morning than if we were to read it for the first time at night?  There is a reason; by reading our horoscope in the morning, we get to spend the whole day subconsciously seeking out to validate our horoscope.  After all, who doesn't a five star day?  What we focus on we create.  Generational gaps could be no different thanks to “social proof” or believing in something because everyone else does.

So, do generational gaps exist?  I suggest the answer might be no. It is important to note that theories on generational gaps lack empirical scientific support (Costanza, Fraser, Badger, Severt, & Gade, 2012; Giancola, 2006; Parry & Urwin, 2010).

We can all agree that evolution took a very long time to get where we are today.  With generational gaps, are we truly changing human desires in 10 or even 20 years.  Some will say “kids now-a-day are just not committed to any one company”.  Sounds pretty logical considering what we seem to see today in the work place however are we looking deep enough?  Why do young people jump from job to job? Generations are defined by periods of time however many of the research methods include cross-sectional or cross-temporal designs which do not recognize the effects of ones' age.  Constanza, et al. (2012) concluded "where generational differences do exist on work-related outcomes, they are relatively small and the inconsistent pattern of results does not support the hypothesis of systematic differences" (p.391). 

What I seem to find more often than not is that younger people are more focused extrinsically as marketing campaigns drive desires.  When we have a sense of purpose and live a meaningful life, money is not as important.  And some younger people seem to seek the fastest car (to be cool), or the biggest TV as way to fit in or bring attention.  (reminds me of ones’ mid-life crisis.  Between a heightened awareness of mortality due to friends passing and when someone doesn’t have a sense of purpose, they are thought to believe that buying that red sports car will make them happier just like younger people seeking compensation in its highest denomination).  When someone has a focus on money, they will jump from job to job in pursuit of extrinsic rewards vs seeking to live a fulfilled life by holding a position that is meaningful and helps fulfill ones’ purpose. 

What does else research tell us?  Jennifer Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership utilized seven years of research surveying more than 7000 leaders to answer this question.  Her findings?  Generational gaps are simply stereotypes that need to be retired. Deal notes that miscommunication and misunderstanding are largely to blame for the creation of generational gaps.  As a leader, I have managed a range of ages as young as their early 20’s to some in their 60’s.  I can honestly tell you that I do not treat them any different.  Employee engagement scores are high showing they are all satisfied.  Deal notes that there are certain basic truths to keep in mind.  They are:

  • All generations have similar values with family topping the list
  • Everyone wants respect
  • Leaders must be trustworthy (regardless to generation, many trust the organization and those they are in direct contact with more than they trust upper management)
  • Organizational politics negatively impacts all generations
  • No generation is accepting to change more than another
  • Loyalty depends on context (close to retirement or not)
  • Everyone wants to learn (five development areas shared across all generations are leadership, skills training, problem solving, decision making, team building and communication)
  • Everyone appreciates feedback. 

This conversation also reminds me of Self-Determination Theory (Deci and Ryan) which suggests that individuals have three intrinsic motivators.  They are competence (mastery), autonomy (freedom in their position), relatedness ( their purpose).  I see these related to all generations as well.  When someone (regardless of age) has the ability to master their skills, the freedom to do their job how they want to and understand how their work aligns with a greater good, they are intrinsically motivated.

In the end, generational gaps appear to be nothing more than stereotypes like those of gender and ethnic stereotypes which are hurtful and damaging.  Simply put, leaders should treat individuals as individuals (being respectful and understanding) and not as belonging to a certain generation.  I would hypothesis that while there are different influences in respect to generations, the very core of our being has not changed at all, only that which is on the surface.

What are your thoughts on generational gaps?  If you feel that generational gaps do exist, in what context would that be?  Do you agree with the findings of Jennifer Deal, Costanza, Giancoal and others??  

For additional information, visit the Center for Creative Leadership Website at


Costanza D. P., Fraser, R. L., Badger, J. M., Severt, J. B., & Gade, P. A. (2012). Generational differences in work-related variables: A meta-analysis. Journal of Business Psychology, 27(4), 375-394. DOI 10.1007

Giancola, F. (2006). The generation gap: More myth than reality. Human Resource Planning29(4), 32.

Parry, E., & Urwin, P. (2010) Generational differences in work values: A review of theory and evidence. International Journal of Management Reviews, 13, 79–96. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2370.2010.00285.x