An entire industry has grown around the concept that differences exhibited by the younger generations are long-lasting and important for employers to understand and accommodate. But what if the younger generation today is similar in most respects to the younger generations of past years?
A couple of years ago I wrote a column about the wave of studies about generational differences in the workplace, something that has become its own industry. Virtually everyone has heard something about Generation X, Generation Y and Millennials, although if you're like me, you don't really know to whom they actually refer.
What was surprising to me then was, first, that all the studies arguing about the importance of generational differences were written by consultants.
The second and more important surprise was that the consultant stories violated the central principle in demographic studies like these -- and that is to sort out "age effects" from true "cohort" or "generational" effects.
Here's the idea: 20-year-olds today seem pretty self-centered. Is that because they are part of a new, "me" generation, a "cohort effect?" Or is simply because 20-year-olds are always self-centered -- "age effects" -- given that the big responsibilities of adult life are often not yet on their shoulders?
And here's why that distinction matters: If the apparent differences are the result of age effects, they are transient. Twenty-year-olds will grow up to be 30-year-olds and will acquire the responsibilities and interests along the way that change how they behave.
Trying to make your organization adjust to the needs and interests of current 20-year-olds is a fool's errand because they are going to change.
Yet these "generation" studies have become so successful that most HR departments seem to have put some programs in place to respond to them.
Into this topic come some new studies that address the generational effects appropriately. What they do is compare 20-year-olds now to those from earlier periods to see if there are really any cohort effects.
The cohort or generational arguments are that something about the growing-up experience of current 20-year-olds (and 25-year-olds and 30-year-olds, depending on the argument) is so different from those born just before them or just after them that these individuals may likely express those differences for the rest of their lives.
The classic example of this, about which demographers agree, is that the "baby-boomer" cohort, born into prosperity and relative peace, was a different "generation" with different values than their parents, who were born in or around the Great Depression and lived through World War II.
One of the new studies, entitled Generational Difference in Work Values: Leisure and Extrinsic Values Increasing, Social and Intrinsic Values Decreasing by Jean M. Twenge, Stacy M. Campbell, Brian J. Hoffman and Charles E. Lance, compares high-school seniors in 1976 to those in 1991 and in 2006.
By my read, the differences in values and attitudes are few and modest. But two that appear important are also somewhat contradictory. The 2006 seniors actually appear to be less interested in meaningful work than in money, the opposite of what popular writing says about them. They also seem more interested in work/life balance than the previous generations, which is what popular pundits say.
Whether these differences reflect real differences in values or simply that the workplace has changed is impossible to say.
Real wages have declined considerably from 1976 to 2006 while the demands of work have gone up. So it would be perfectly reasonable for any individual to place a greater priority on finding a job that pays well and that has fewer demands simply because such jobs are harder to find.
This is the same reason why people are more interested in buying mittens in the winter than in the summer. No differences in student values are required to get this result.
The second study, It's Developmental Me, Not Generation Me by Brent W. Roberts, Grant Edmonds and Emily Grijalva, challenges the relatively modest conclusions of the above study and others that point to the popular idea that young people today want more and are more narcissistic than previous generations.
This study looks across many data sets and concludes that differences in narcissism or self-centeredness are just age-related: Young people are always and perhaps understandably more self-centered than older individuals.
What's the take-away, as we say in business school? That there is still no evidence that there are any generational differences and certainly none that matter enough to drive important differences in behavior.
The biggest point about this entire topic, about which there is no dispute, is that even if there were average differences between age groups in their values, they are irrelevant for employers.
Their reason is that average effects mask enormous variation within any age group: The average man in the United States is 5-feet-9, but there are lots of people who are taller or shorter. If you are hiring 100 people out of an age cohort of four million 20-year-olds, it isn't that hard to find whatever set of values you want, just as it isn't hard to find men who are 6-feet tall if you want them.
We have to recruit and select for what we want, and that doesn't change, even if average values change.
Want something to worry about? Try the fact that we are obsessing about non-existent differences in the interests between young people while ignoring the interests of the huge and growing older workforce.
More on that next month.
Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. www.talentondemand.org.