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Posted: Wednesday, Feb. 01, 2012

Generational stereotypes entering the workplace

By Lisa Thornton
Published in: Cabarrus News

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Glen Swyers owns an iPad and a smartphone. He's known for decades how to work a computer.

Yet Swyers, 48, who rides the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, often sees surprised looks from those younger than him when he pulls out his latest gadget.

"I get stereotyped against because I'm older, so therefore I can't do technology," he said.

Frustrating for those who feel them and don't neatly fit into them, generational stereotypes are nothing new.

"Baby Boomers can't operate technology." "Millennials are lazy and feel entitled to rewards they haven't earned." The list of sweeping generalizations plunking people by their ages into often unfavorable categories goes on and on.

Now, with advances in medicine, increasing lifespans, and more people holding off retirement in the fledgling economy, generational stereotypes are creeping into the cubicles, too, where, for the first time in recent history, four generations are sharing office space.

"It's a stereotyping that can actually lead to some very negative outcomes and over-generalizations, as any stereotyping would do," said Steven Rogelberg, professor and director of organizational science at UNC Charlotte.

Rogelberg has spent years studying team effectiveness and employee well-being in the workplace. He currently serves as editor at The Journal of Business and Psychology.

"It's great banter to say, 'Millennials are this, this and this, and Baby Boomers are this, this and this,' " he said. "But to think you could confidently categorize that amount of people with such a broad stroke borders on silliness."

Consultant agencies in recent years have jumped at the opportunity to teach employers from one generation how to interact with employees from another.

"You definitely will be able to find consultants who are making big money rolling out Millennial training programs," said Rogelberg. "They say, 'Gosh, you have these Millennials. Here's 10 steps for dealing with them.' "

Rogelberg said that kind of categorizing often does more harm than good for employers.

"People differ. Your job is to understand your people as individuals, not as members of a generation per se. Tap into the rich diversity of your workforce," he said.

At Classic Graphics, where Swyers works, employees strive to do just that. The graphics communication company, housed in University City's Innovation Park, has 251 employees ages 23 to 74.

Many of those who work together on teams say any diversity they may encounter between their generations serves as a benefit, not a hindrance.

"Some from my generation may say these kids don't work as hard as we do. I say, no, they're more efficient," said Reg King, 60, who often sees his Millennial and Generation X colleagues use new technology to get their work done faster.

His generation can provide the experience the younger employees have yet to acquire, he said.

"We've been through those wars," King said. "We've been doing it for many, many years. We can share a lot of that experience with them."

Lauren Brown, 25, who often uses technology in her work, said there's often no substitute for someone with experience. "I can say, 'This is how Google says I should do it, but you've been through it a hundred times. How would you do it?' "

Rogelberg said each generation encompasses many different personalities, and no one should be lumped into a stereotype based solely on age.

"If you look at the Millennial generation, there is substantial variation in it with regard to attitude, behavior and practice," he said. "The fact is, the variability within Millennials is often just as great (as) or even greater than the differences between Millennials and Baby Boomers."

Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer for Cabarrus News. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at lisathornton@carolina.rr.com.

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