Sean Lyons investigates the complexities of the generational identity
Generational identity is not as easily or simply defined as one might think. According to research by professor Sean Lyons, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers and Millennials often share like values within their respective groups, but it is insufficient to paint so many people with the same brush based solely on their birth year. Lyons’s findings on within-generation variance form an updated and more complex picture of generational identity, information that could help managers gain a stronger understanding of their multi-generational teams.
Lyons’s research, funded by a five-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) as well as a Mitacs grant, takes a qualitative approach to evaluating the extent to which people identify with their generation; specifically, how it is expressed in the way people talk about generations in the workplace. To explore this topic Lyons, and his co-investigator Linda Schweitzer from Carleton University, conducted in-depth phone interviews with more than 100 employed Canadians asking a series of questions concerning their experience with generational differences, stereotypes and workplace conflicts. Their findings indicate that while some people do express some form of generational identity, it is not always in alignment with the mainstream generational groups discussed in media, such as Baby Boomers, Generation Xers or Millennials.
“Our key finding from this study is that generational identity is not a homogeneous phenomenon as the early research suggests,” said Lyons. “People identify with generations to varying degrees and for a variety of reasons. It's therefore insufficient to lump together people born within a certain age range and expect them to have a common set of values. Generations are more complex and require more nuanced understanding of the confluence of beliefs and values within generations as well as among them.”
Compared to previous research, Lyons’s study shows that generational identity is more malleable than originally thought, and according to his study more attention is paid to the environmental factors that directly affect people’s upbringings. For example, the state of the economy, demographics of the population, technology and environmental and social issues are constantly evolving and change the opportunities and challenges people face. The fluidity of generational identity sometimes goes to the extent to where people identify more so with other generations.
“We were surprised at the number of people who identified with a generational group that did not match the socially accepted definition of their generation based on their age,” Lyons added. “There were younger people who identified as Generation Xers and vice versa. Basically, we have to try to examine the impacts of aging on individuals within the context in which they are aging and the unique historical events that shape and disrupt that context.”
Outside of the realm of research, Lyons’s findings could have a positive impact on the workplace, especially as far as management is concerned. Gaining a better understanding of how people from multiple generations can better work together could mean more productive and harmonious office environments, and give managers the tools they need to effectively manage their teams.
“Generational differences are a diversity issue like gender and cultural background,” said Lyons. “Collaboration, creativity and team performance all depend on the degree to which diversity is leveraged and conflicts are managed. It's a fundamental responsibility of managers to ensure that the workforce is operating at its full capacity and effective management of generational differences is one important aspect of that responsibility.”
As for the future of this research, he says that the generational characteristics of each group should be investigated further. In this study, the malleability of generational identity was a key finding and this next step will allow researchers to look at generations through a different lens and detach them from age.
“There's a lot of diversity within each generation, but that does not mean that generations are not meaningful social groups. The topic continues to evolve, as does our understanding of generational phenomena, so I've never become bored of this challenging field of research.”
*Sean Lyons is a professor within the Department of Management. He actively collaborates with graduate students who are interested in his area of research. To learn more about Sean, visit his faculty profile.