The Generation Game: Do Age Groups Have Different Personalities

By Andrew Baud

Do different age groups have different personality types? A new study asks the question, and offers some surprising answers, as Talent Q founder Roger Holdsworth explains.

Age-related stereotypes abound in our society. From the portrait of selfish, feckless youth in TV shows like Skins through to the grumpy, conservative vision of old age provided by Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave.

But do these crude caricatures hold up to serious scrutiny? Or - to put it another way - do different generations have specific characteristics that we should be aware of as HR professionals?

At Talent Q, we compared nearly 4,000 people across three generations - Generation Y (with an average age of 22), Generation X (average of 35) and the Baby Boomers (average of 55) to see if there were any clear trends.

The results challenged stereotypes, but also posed some interesting questions for the future.

First, we found that those in their early 20s had higher ethical standards, showed greater attention to detail and were more socially adept than older generations. All of which goes against popular perceptions of modern youth.

But surprising, the younger generation also proved to be less adaptable to variety and change, less likely to be good decision-makers, and less able to cope with a fast pace of work. Generation Ys were also generally less organised, less keen on planning their workload and less efficient than other generations.

Should we be worried by this? Well yes, possibly.

A shifting economy means adaptability, efficiency and dynamism are key traits for a modern workforce. One study suggests that Generation Y is likely to have an average of 14 different jobs by the time they turn 35, so it is a little concerning - not to mention perverse - that the younger generations seem less well disposed to change than their elders.

The 20-somethings we studied also tended to be less resilient, less confident at negotiation and decision-making, less influential in a leadership capacity and less able or willing to follow the rules - all of which tallies with bosses' complaints in annual CBI surveys.

But there were positives to draw upon too. Our research explodes the myth that younger people tend to be surlier and more selfish than previous generations. In fact, the Generation Ys were found to be more socially aware and more in tune with other's behaviour than their elders.

They also generally showed a stronger ethical code, which bodes well as business flexes to meet important challenges like climate change and corporate social responsibility: these agendas, it would seem, are in safe hands for the future.

So what then of the 'Baby Boomers'? Can we put some of their caricatures to the sword too?

Well certainly, the idea that older generations are conservative and 'set in their ways' can be challenged quite strongly.

The 50 and 60-somethings we surveyed were more likely to adopt new techniques and more likely to favour radical ideas than the younger generations - proof that "you can teach an old dog new tricks."

But interestingly, the same generation were also found to be less ambitious, less competitive and less likely to fit in with different types of people.

The difference in ambition and competitiveness may be explained by the ageing process - with older people easing down as they approach retirement.

But the social dimension suggests one abiding stereotype may have a grain of truth to it. Our findings do appear to bear out the 'grumpy old man' tag. Statistically at least, older generations are less socially adept than younger people - so Victor Meldrew, it would seem, continues to flourish in our society!

Of course, these conclusions are interesting, sometimes quite amusing. But they come with a big health warning - and that is that they remain massive generalisations. The differences we did record - while statistically significant - remained small, suggesting that there is actually more similarity between generations than many pundits might have you believe.

So the bottom line is simple, if a bit dull: there simply are no short-cuts. All stereotypes are inevitably flawed. They exist, as someone wisely wrote, "to save a biased person the trouble of learning."

That's a lesson we should all remember before we make a snap judgement based on person's age. More often than not, you will be wrong.

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