The Hard Truth about Generational Differences

April 1, 2024 10:07 am Published by

Over the past several years, much attention has been given to differences across generations, including in the workplace. Why has this been such a focus? Because of the huge sociological shift in our culture, moving from one very large generation (Boomers), who have had significant influence on cultural values and norms, to the next generations (Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z) who have now become the primary cultural influencers.

Do Generational Differences Really Exist? And, if so, why?

As has been demonstrated by thousands of research studies, many differences exist across generations – in preferences, values, lifestyle choices, beliefs, spending habits, career paths, and beyond. Essentially, these variations across age groups are largely the result of unique life and societal experiences that have shaped each generation’s worldview of what is most important to them and how they view their lives, both presently and into the future.

In reality, generational differences are nothing new, as references abound in literature throughout history. But they do seem to have become more pronounced and clearly defined by world events and technological advances. And the time periods which define generations seem to have become shorter than in past centuries — ostensibly, due to the rapid rate of change we are experiencing.

Are There Generational Differences in Preferences for Appreciation?

In research we have conducted — pre-COVID-19, in the midst of the pandemic, and post-COVID-19— we have consistently found distinct variations in how generations prefer to be shown appreciation at work. Here are some examples:

  • In general, the younger the employee, the more likely they are to choose Quality Timeas their primary language of appreciation. 
  • The type of Quality Time desired varies across generations, with more senior team members valuing individual time with their supervisor or manager, while younger colleagues prefer spending time with their colleagues and same-aged peers.
  • Demonstrating appreciation for a colleague through Tangible Gifts is desired far less by older team members (chosen by only 2% of those 60 years old or above, in comparison to 7% of their younger peers). This is ironic since most retiring team members are almost always given a gift as a token of appreciation.
  • While Tangible Gifts as an act of appreciation are not chosen frequently, being given time off (whether comp time or through flex time) is the most desired type of gift, and increasingly so, by younger employees.

Two Important Similarities

While the variations across age groups are important to be aware of, just as important are two similarities we consistently find across all employees, regardless of their age.

First, across the United States & Canada, Words of Affirmation is consistently the appreciation language valued most frequently by employees (by 46%). Pay attention, however, to the fact that the way the appreciation is communicated is equally important, because you can easily miss the mark if you compliment someone publicly when that embarrasses them, or if your praise is vague and nondescript (“Good job”).

Secondly, Tangible Gifts are (by far) the least valued way people say they want to be appreciated – only 7% of all employees. Yet, unfortunately, giving some tangible reward has been brainwashed into our corporate culture as “what employees want.” Not true. And, we have found this pattern to be the case across the globe.

Practically, The Most Important Factor

While trends across groups, including generations, are interesting, they aren’t that practically useful. Yes, they can give you a better idea of appreciation preferences for groups of employees. But, ultimately, the most important information is to identify the specific preferences of the various individuals on your team. Even though they are part of an identifiable group, each person is unique and has their own preferred ways they desire to be appreciated (both in terms of their appreciation language and the specific actions within that language.)  So don’t waste any more time guessing or trying different ways of appreciating your colleagues, find out specifically what they like (and what they don’t like), and then you’ll be accurate, efficient, and impactful in how you show appreciation to them.

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To encourage you to take the next step, we are offering a discount on registration codes for our Expanded version of the MBA Inventory where you can find out the language and specific actions important to your team members (and you can have a Group Summary Report created for your team, as well.)

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April 1, 2024 10:07 am

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