BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

From Gen Y Women to Employers: What You Need to Know about Intergenerational Workplace Dynamics

Posted by knbarrett on December 15, 2011

Kara Nichols Barrett

By Kara Nichols Barrett, lead project researcher

Business and Professional Women’s Foundation new report – From Gen Y Women to Employers: What They Want in the Workplace and Why it Matters for Business – explores Gen Y women’s career choices and the opportunities and challenges they face in the workplace. Results from our national survey of Gen Y (born 1978-1994) women challenged popular perceptions of Gen Y women in the workplace. Over the last few weeks, we’ve examined key misconceptions related to work values, work-life balance and gender in the workplace.

Today’s topic is intergenerational workplace dynamics. Over 660 Gen Y women told us about:

  • the severity of generational conflict and discrimination in the workplace;
  • their personal experiences with generational conflict and discrimination in the workplace;
  • the common sources of generational conflict and discrimination in the workplace;
  • their responses to generation conflict and discrimination; and
  • their recommendations to help employers improve intergenerational workplace dynamics.

Here are the top three messages from Gen Y women to employers about intergenerational workplace dynamics.

Age Bias isn’t exclusively reserved for mature workers. We’ve read When Generations Collide, and books like it, that describe the workplace as a battlefield. Based on the literature, we too assumed Gen Y would sense the tension between generations. They do. But, not the way we expected. We assumed Gen Y would describe the generational conflict they experienced because of differences in values, communication style, technology use, and work-life balance.  Respondents reported something different. They described experiences with ageism. Robert Neil Butler, who coined the term in the late 1960s, defined ageism as a combination of three elements: prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory behaviors and institutional policies or practices that perpetuate stereotypes against a particular age group. Gen Y women provided examples of all three elements of ageism. Forty-percent of Gen Y women reported not being taken seriously because of their age, being called names such as “kid,” being held to different standards because of their age and being passed over for promotions because of their age.

The phenomenon of ageism in employment is typically applied to older adults. However, more studies are emerging that support the hypothesis that young workers can be disadvantaged in the workplace by age stereotyping. One study found that one-third of all business students had experienced age discrimination in employment – being given relatively low-paid jobs because of beliefs associated with their age and being given less responsibility because of beliefs associated with youth and trustworthiness.

Gen Y + Woman = SOL. What happens when a young worker – already subjected to discriminatory attitudes, policies and practices because of age – also happens to be a woman? The discrimination intensifies. BPW Foundation survey results suggest that gender and age have a compounding effect. Gen Y women who had experienced gender discrimination were more likely to report generational conflict or age bias than those who had not. Over 50 percent of Gen Y women who experienced gender discrimination also reported generational discrimination. Our findings corroborate with previous studies on the gender dimension of ageism in the workplace. One study described being a woman and being young as a “double jeopardy.” Being a woman seems to intensify the age prejudice at work.

You may have the right answer to the wrong question. Management strategies for addressing generational conflict in the workplace assume that workers from different generations clash because of their differences – be they work ethics, work style or communication. Interventions focus on identifying, understanding, appreciating and accommodating differences. Lessons from the literature on ageism indicate an alternate entry point – beliefs, attitudes and perceptions. Studies on ageism in the workplace indicate that it is beliefs about differences, not the differences themselves that lead to discriminatory practices and policies. Posing questions about the differences between generations versus the beliefs about generational differences will lead to different sets of solutions. Gen Y women report that generational diversity is important and recognize the benefits gained from workplaces that include a variety of professional experiences and perspectives. Developing efforts to identify and address age discrimination may be an important strategy for improving intergenerational workplace dynamics.

This research, funded by the Virginia Allan Young Careerist Grant, is part of BPW Foundation’s ongoing “Young Careerist” research project that since 2005 has been exploring the career opportunities and challenges facing today’s young working women.  The research gives voice to a distinct group of working women who are vital to developing a diverse and skilled workforce.  Research has been conducted using social media, focus groups and this national survey. To find all of the research and this report, visit our Young Careerist website.

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