While it is no longer acceptable to assume that all men are stronger than all women, or that people of one colour have different personalities to those of another colour it is, it appears, entirely acceptable to declare that anyone born since 1980 is addicted to social media and will ‘challenge traditional hierarchical HSE systems’, while anyone born before that date is a luddite with no understanding of the modern age, but will be quite happy to toe the line.
One article states boldly 'Millennials and Generation Z are smarter, safer, more mature and want to make the world a better place…but on their terms.’
The dates in this arbitrary classification system vary from one source to another, but a typical set of birth dates classifies people as follows:
- 1946 to 1964 – baby boomers, characterised as diligent but selfish
- 1965 to 1979 – generation X or Gen X, described as loyal but cynical
- 1980 to 1995 – generation Y, also known as millennials, described as inherently sociable and yet technology obsessed
- 1996 to 2012 – generation Z, or post-millennials, portrayed as risk-averse with short attention spans.
There is no evidence for these boundaries any more than there is for saying that Aquarians are more compassionate than Scorpios, or that all atheists are smarter than all believers. Evidence presented is frequently contradictory. For example, many sources claim generations Y and Z are more conscious of health issues, healthy eating and exercise; and yet NHS statistics show that they are more likely than gen X to be obese.
In the USA, David Costanza, associate professor of industrial-organisational psychology at The George Washington University, has been researching generational differences since 2010. Following a systematic review of the evidence, he concludes that ‘meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist on work-related variables like job satisfaction and organisational commitment’. Where studies have found differences, Costanza believes these can be explained by age, career stage or economic conditions, or the findings are based on ‘serious statistical and methodological flaws’.
Younger people joining the profession will have new ideas, but this comes from their experience and their education and the society in which they are growing up, not from inherent personality characteristics dictated by their age, any more than by their star sign.
Instead of regurgitating information provided by a teacher on a blackboard, younger people learn by researching topics for themselves, to find out things the teachers didn’t know, and to present these back to the class. Asking people educated in this way to sit in a classroom for a day’s safety training delivered by PowerPoint will bore and alienate them. Asking them to research a safety topic for themselves will make it more likely that they remember what they have learnt, and incorporate it into their work. What you discover as a trainer is that most people benefit by newer approaches to learning, regardless of age.
Office of National Statistics (ONS) data suggests that while generations X, Y and Z all use computers equally, they use them differently. Younger people are more likely to post pictures and videos on the internet, while gen X are more likely to use a computer as a tool, for example for banking or shopping. One development that exploits both these tendencies is the increasing use of mobile phones to report hazards. Snapping a photo of a hazard and posting it might appeal to the social media users, while having a reporting tool on your phone appeals to the pragmatic users. While younger people might be the drivers to use technology to improve worker participation and engagement, the results can benefit people of any generation.
It is useful to consider dates of birth in succession planning. The last IOSH salary survey in 2017 found a median average age band of 45-54. About one in four respondents were over 55, and only 14.5% under 35. This suggests it is likely that at least a quarter of the profession will retire in the next decade. If we don’t recruit younger people into the profession during that time, lessons learnt will be lost, and there could be a real shortage of competence and experience. Stereotyping people as generations X, Y or Z won’t help this recruitment process.