Dr Katrina Pritchard and Dr Rebecca Whiting (2015), "Generational Diversity at Work: New Research Perspectives", Personnel Review, Vol. 44 No. 1, pp. 176-179. https://doi.org/10.1108/PR-10-2014-0244
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Generational labels, such as Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials, are widely used to distinguish social groups in popular media (e.g. Howker and Malik, 2010) and academia (Deal et al., 2010). Intergenerational tension and generational diversity have become issues of organisational concern, requiring new insights to lead and manage different generations differently. However generational categories are rarely unpacked (Lyons and Kuron, 2014), definitional issues largely remain unexamined (Cody et al., 2012) and research (methodological) limitations prompt some to declare that findings in respect of a particular generation (Millennials) are “confusing at best and contradictory at worst” (Deal et al., 2010, p. 191).
Against this backdrop, in “Generational Diversity at Work” Emma Parry (Editor) brings together a timely and relevant collection of quantitative and qualitative research useful for both practitioner and academic audiences. As she notes, interest in generations at work has “exploded since the turn of the twenty-first century” (p. 1). This collection covers theoretical, conceptual and empirical issues at the heart of this topic, bringing together for the first time several key authors in the field.
The book contains 12 chapters, set up in a very useful introduction by the editor. This outlines the book’s four part structure: conceptualisation, methodological approaches, recent empirical studies and generational differences outside the western context. This final section on international perspectives is particularly welcome in an area of study dominated by USA and European research.
The book focuses on generational diversity in the workplace with the goal “to highlight the need for further investigation and new perspectives on this concept so that the impact of generational differences can be more fully understood” (p. 1). It seeks to bring together “work from a range of scholars whose research has aimed to take an alternative approach or perspective” (p. 1). This aim is to be applauded though we might ask “alternative” to what exactly? At this point, we should declare our own interest, since our social constructionist research approach to age and generations (e.g. reference provided on cover page) informs, and no doubt colours, our reading of this book.
Overall, the book both scrutinises theoretical issues associated with conceptualisations of generations and considers the implications where various conceptualisations have been adopted within practice. Some chapters adopt a notably more critical tone than others, the Introduction and Chapter 6 in particular. Indeed, in the former, Parry identifies two limitations of the popular operationalization of generations namely that birth year alone is insufficient as it fails to account for other “social space” factors like geography and gender and second, that the cross-sectional design of many studies cannot distinguish generational from age and time-period effects. We suggest that readers might also want to consider critiques from social constructionist or discursive perspectives such as have been effectively applied in research on ageing (Rozanova, 2010) and older workers (Ainsworth and Hardy, 2007) and share the aim of this book in looking beyond chronology in our understandings of age-derived categories such as generations.
Given the book’s focus on generations in the workplace, one surprising omission is direct reference to Fineman’s (2011) book which critiqued the reification of generations in this context. However, as researchers in this area ourselves, we are well aware that increasing specialisation means that academic literatures are often tightly bounded by research approach; the literature on age and generations is no exception. We therefore flag here another contribution which readers interested in this topic may find useful but which has taken place in parallel with the book under review, namely a Special Issue in Organization Studies, (Thomas et al., 2014).
Returning to the review in hand, the chapters in Part I usefully open up lines of critical enquiry, whilst providing a sound foundation for those who are new to the topic. On the whole, authors of individual chapters do well to reinforce definitions and concepts utilised as the book progresses. In an area renowned for lack of conceptual clarity, this is no mean editorial feat.
Chapter 2 positions understandings of generations in broader relation to (some) of the wider literature on age, with their focus on a context-sensitive measurement of subjective age rather than chronological age alone. We share the authors’ view that the “Age Cube” tends towards completeness rather than parsimony and the resulting 140 possible combinations of age constructs might seem rather overwhelming for some. Chapter 3 focuses on the psychological contract and usefully includes a discussion of what is meant by a formative event for generations, an issue often overlooked. The conclusion that different organisational contexts may “enhance or supress generational identities” (p. 47) highlights a complexity often ignored in less academic accounts of generations at work. Chapter 4 deals with work-home values and offers some insights into generational differences. This offers a useful introductory discussion though those more familiar with the topic may seek more interrogation of socio-cultural differences.
Moving to Part II, in Chapter 5 Campbell and Twenge provide a detailed review of how to “tease apart” age and generation methodologically using time-lag research designs, tackling head-on what Parry and others have seen to be a major methodological limitation of research in this area. They conclude that while there are issues with over-simplification and generalisation “if we are going to discard generational studies because they do not apply to everyone, we would have to discard virtually all scientific studies” (p. 71). Chapter 6 offers a particularly useful twist in rejecting the now ubiquitous alphabetical symbols of generations, adopting a data-driven approach and asking instead “if generations exist, what are the generations?” (p. 83). Good question! Here Urwin, Buscha and Parry also interrogate the often ignored issue of whether and how general social attitudes are “brought to” the workplace whilst suggesting that “hypothesised differences between [generational] cohorts are often reflections of more long term trends in society” (p. 91). This approach of letting “the data steer the delineation of generational categories” (p. 91) provides, in our opinion, one of the most innovative contributions to the book. This is summarised by their conclusion that “the more recent adoption of the four generational categories [Gen X, Gen Y, Boomers and Veterans] cannot be justified on the evidence available” (p. 91).
Part III provides a range of research papers each addressing a different area of interest to organisational scholars and practitioners (though many of the latter and some of the former may find the analytic detail heavy going in places). Chapter 7 considers intergenerational cooperation in teams, treating generations as a “surface-level composition variable” (p. 99) but also discussing age and age stereotypes. One conclusion is that generational diversity does not play a role in teams with regard to commitment, intention to stay, and cooperation and due credit to the editors for including this null result as these are notoriously under-published. Chapters 8 and 9 both apply ideas from social identity theory to look at issues of identification and stereotyping with the latter reporting the interesting finding that all stereotypes are contingent on our generational positioning. Chapter 10 explores if different generations faced different career challenges using a qualitative approach whilst Chapter 11 approaches the same topic (career) from a quantitative perspective using secondary data from the 2003 and 2009 surveys by the National Centre for Partnership and Performance in Ireland. Those experienced in quantitative methods may require more detail here and have wished to see the results further unpacked, particularly since a key finding is that effect sizes in relation to generations were very small.
Whilst the book would have been a useful contribution if it had ended here, Part IV is a significant addition. Chapter 12 offers an interesting and data-driven mapping of what generations might mean in India through investigating whether there are unique historical events in an Indian context. This allows the authors to label four “Indian generations” and raises issues associated with the intersections of gender and parental occupation as influences. This signals not only a broadening global perspective for generation research but also suggests a move towards considering intersectionality. The final chapter then moves to consider career success across countries with a review of older and younger generations’ experiences.
This timely book brings together important ideas and key authors to address explicitly for the first time the topic of generations, and possible differences between them, in workplace contexts. Overall this book makes a significant contribution to enhancing understanding in this area. Whilst delineating the scope of such a volume will always be problematic, our only reservation is the limited discussion of more critical perspectives. In the Introduction, Parry references important debates in this regard, warning that generations might be seen by some as “a means to continue discriminating against individuals based on age, despite the recently introduced legislation against age discrimination” (p. 4). A significant book could have been even better had it included more alternative approaches to develop this insightful and intriguing idea further.
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Cody, S. , Green, W. and Lynch, D. (2012), “Myths and realities in human capital development: generation gaps in the workplaces”, in Benscoter, G.M. (Ed.), The Encyclopaedia of Human Resource Management , Pfeiffer, San Francisco, CA, pp. 197-209.
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Pritchard, K. and Whiting, R. (2014), “Baby boomers and the lost generation: on the discursive construction of generations at work”, Organization Studies , forthcoming.