The reality of generational differences: It’s about society, not individuals
Dispelling generational myths and clarifying the root of workforce personnel differences
By Dr. Andrew Holter
Over the years, pop psychology has led us to believe that people of various generations need different things to feel engaged and satisfied in the workplace or have distinct motivations for coming to work. I have read the articles and attended these seminars that tout these beliefs about generational differences and what makes each generation unique.
What you read next might be hard to believe, but it’s based on hard evidence, academic research and other credible sources: Most of the information that has become common belief on the subject is actually inaccurate or at least unsupported by empirical evidence. The less-talked-about critical changes in the workforce and workplace are far more pressing, requiring us to adapt now or face an uncertain future of survival rather than sustainability.
For full disclosure, I’m a part of Generation Y (aka a millennial), which has recently become the largest generation in the U.S. workforce. Millennials are 27 to 42 years old. Generation Y accounts for more than 35% of all workers and will soon become a large majority of the workforce over the next 5 to 10 years.
The younger people entering the workforce are members of Generation Z, which accounts for about 5% of the workforce today. Many are younger, still in college or school, ranging from 11 to 26 years old in 2023.
Moving in the other direction from Gen Y, Generation X includes people aged 43 to 58, and accounts for 33% of the workforce, nearly the same percentage of the workforce as Generation Y.
Baby boomers have been leaving the workforce in droves since 2020. Baby boomers range in age from 59 to 77.
These significant age ranges within generations provide unlimited variables and huge variances within each group, making generational stereotyping and bucketing incredibly shortsighted.
Dispelling generational myths
Let’s take a moment to dispel some of the common beliefs about generations in the workplace.
Myth: Each generation has specific and unique differences that require distinct approaches to manage and lead.
Facts: Little to no evidence supports claims that people of different generations require different things at work, have unique motivations, or need diverse management styles. The more significant factor to consider is perception and perspective. People of different ages have different views of the world around them, shaped by experience, maturity, family life, education, and personal and professional development. The changing workplace landscape is not caused by the individuals’ inherent characteristics, but rather their reaction to societal change. For example, the workplace is different today than three years ago, not because of generational differences but because of how society views work pre- and post-pandemic.
Similarly, the workforce is changing, not because of a new generation but because of changes happening in our world. Employees, in general, want to be valued by their organization and be treated fairly and justly, regardless of age or generational affiliation. All people want more access to more information. This is not a result of age but rather the speed and access our society now expects of information.
Myth: Young people quit their jobs too much – and there is no more loyalty!
Facts: On average, millennials change jobs about every 26 months. This is likely the byproduct of other factors unrelated to generational differences. For example, many organizations treat tenure differently than they did 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, job-hoppers often find positive outcomes, resulting in higher pay over their career and better career advancement. Part of the issue is that the workplace is different. Few of us on the younger side are working toward a pension package, lifetime medical benefits, or a similarly meaningful reward for our loyalty.
In contrast, older employees in the workforce are still working toward those benefits and would be negatively impacted by leaving or job-hopping at this point in their careers. Older workers also have more commitments, including children, and millennials, compared to other generations, have far fewer children than previous generations. That trend seems to be increasing for Gen Z. This is a complex issue but isn’t necessarily as simple as a generational difference. In part, it could be a matter of age and career progression. This tenure conundrum will likely fade as millennials age into their 30s and 40s. However, many millennials have seen that job-hopping results in better career advancement. It may take organizations designing more professional and career development opportunities to keep employees from leaving, regardless of age, as those loyalty benefits slip away.
Myth: Baby boomers are stubborn, resist change, and have mentally checked out on work. They are fear-driven and risk-averse.
Facts: Firstly, first responders, like all people, generally dislike change, which naturally makes at least some of us stubborn. But in some studies, baby boomers were the most engaged and responsive workers interested in learning new things. As far as being risk-averse, this behavior could be rooted in the simple fact that they have either retired or are quickly approaching retirement. Like our financial advisor cautioning us to be more conservative with our investments as we approach retirement, baby boomers are using caution as they reach that career milestone.
Just as a millennial is more likely to change jobs to advance their career, a baby boomer is far less likely to change jobs, not because of fear, but because they are likely near retirement.
Relationships by objectives: Bridging the gap
This model takes a page from unions to allow EMTs, paramedics and firefighters to provide input on their agency’s long-term vision
Change the focus
Ultimately, grouping people by generation is stereotyping. Instead, we should focus on a concept known as diversity consciousness and appreciate that every individual in the organization brings a unique perspective, set of beliefs, values and understanding. Age, gender, race, religion, education, sexual orientation, childhood upbringing, ethnicity, affluence, etc., all help to construct the pieces of who we are as individuals and how we see the world. Likewise, the uniqueness of our perspective is a gift and a tool if leaders are willing to leverage it as a strength and listen to employees. Workplaces need to focus on the inclusion of all people rather than finding reasons to put people into buckets, even generational buckets.
Most studies of generations indicate that workers from all generations are seeking the same things: fair and just compensation, sustaining benefits to meet their healthcare needs, flexible working arrangements to balance their personal lives and work, and a safe workplace for them to be themselves and feel respected. Employers must focus on these factors to retain and recruit workers in this competitive environment. Regardless of generation, these are critical to workforce sustainability.
The changing workplace and workforce
While considering the reality of generational differences, some differences should be ringing the alarm for all public safety entities. Where is the labor market going for firefighters, EMTs and paramedics?
I’ve been asked this question by at least a handful of chief officers in the fire/EMS service. I wanted to blame the declining numbers on young people who are just not interested in careers like this anymore – the typical generational crutch. You may have also considered the decline in volunteerism, which has also been blamed on the “generational issue” of self-centered young people. But the true answer is so much scarier than default assumptions.
As baby boomers retire, the working-age population of the United States has been contracting faster than ever since World War II. Gen Z is smaller than Gen Y, and the projections for Generation Alpha coming up after Gen Z is even smaller. Population growth in the United States has slowed. In 2021, it was the slowest ever in U.S. history. So, how does the labor market affect the fire/EMS service? There are more jobs than workers available, and based on numbers alone, it will get much worse.
Further complicating our task of filling ranks is the changing dynamics of society. As the labor market contracts, workers find more flexible options to make ends meet. The average salary of a DoorDash driver is just shy of $40,000, while the national average for EMTs is $36,500. We all might be quick to look at the salary line and see an issue, but flexibility and autonomy may be the more significant problem we need to see. Gig economy workers can work when they want and without the stress of set hours, expectations or conflicting commitments. Further, younger workers can remain on their parent’s insurance longer, are attending college longer, and are currently not entering the workforce at the rates we saw in the past. Technology has made work available to them in a completely different form.
This is also complicating work for young families. Nearly 60% of households in the United States are dual-income, compared to just 30% back in 1967. Additionally, younger people move around much more than their baby boomer and Gen X counterparts. In the 1980s, finding a job 1,000 miles away in a new state was hard, if not impossible. Today websites like LinkedIn and Indeed make it as easy as one click. Collectively, this means young families today are figuring out ways to raise children that are vastly different than 20 and 30 years ago. When many members of Gen X could have had help raising children, millennials are often finding their own way to do it. That may require one parent to leave the “traditional” workforce and find alternative work, contributing to the workforce shortage.
The bottom line is that none of these issues come down to generational differences in the individuals but rather changes in society and technology to which the individuals must adapt. Fire and EMS agencies must adapt, not to these new young people, but to the new workplace, which is rooted in bigger picture societal changes.
About the author
Dr. Andrew Holter is an organizational psychologist, as well as a fire service professional in North Carolina. He began his career in the fire service in 2005 and has held every rank, including chief in his emergency service career. He holds certifications including Fire Inspector, Fire Instructor II, paramedic, hazmat technician, along with two undergraduate degrees in fire science. In addition to his fire service background, Dr. Holter has spent most of his career working for and with local governments in roles around public safety, serving most recently as the administrative manager of an ISO Class 1 and internationally accredited fire department with over 220 employees. Dr. Holter owns and operates FR Strategies, a company focused on advancing public safety agencies through the use of evidenced-based practices.