Financial Times Interview

Do young people really need the office?

I was recently interviewed by Emma Jacobs of the Financial Times for a piece titled, Do young people really need the office? As is sometimes the case, only part of the interview made it into the article, so I am posting the “full” interview, here:

EJ: I am Gen X and I like purpose and social meaning to my work, as well as flexibility and all the other things that Gen Y are meant to have. But actually the pandemic seems to have shown that of all the groups, it is the younger ones at the start of their careers who are keenest to be in the office - to get away from their flatmates, to learn from others in the organisation etc. while older workers are also keen to work from home, get rid of their commute etc. (I mean, mostly everyone seems to want a bit of everything).

CR: These are all good questions, and one’s that bear additional comment regarding the role of age and assumptions we make about generations. To be clear, the literature on the idea of generations is fraught with theoretical and methodological concerns, not least of which is the very real issue that there is no known, valid way to unambiguously identify and study generations. Thus, every single study (regardless of methodology, sources of data, appearance of sophistication, etc.) that purports to study generations or generational differences is fundamentally flawed, and its conclusions wrong. To be clear, we know nothing about generations because science does not afford us a means to actually study them.

That said, I do fully recognize that the idea of generations is often invoked to study age-relevant phenomena, and this seems to be especially the case at work. This is the focus of my research – if we cannot actually study generations, what accounts for their ubiquity and popularity in discourse about work?

I have not seen any data on employee preferences for returning to work versus remaining in a work from home capacity that are stratified by age, but I do suspect that just about everyone – regardless of their age – is feeling at least somewhat more socially isolated now than they were a year ago at this time. However, I would not expect there to be large differences in these preferences based on age alone. People are inherently social beings, and long periods of working from home can be particularly socially isolating (i.e., “professional isolation” as a result of the pandemic has been discussed in the literature). People are fundamentally motivated by a need to affiliate with others and seek to fulfill basic needs for relatedness which are satisfied by working with others. At the same time, people can seek out other means to remain socially, rather than physically, connected to one-another.

As an aside, nearly everyone, regardless of their age, seeks to find purpose and social meaning in their work. In much the same way, people of all ages want and benefit from flexibility at work, which fulfills a basic human need for control and autonomy.

EJ: Do you think Covid has exposed some of these generational stereotypes as just that?

CR: Stereotypes about different assumed generations are just that – stereotypes. They are overgeneralized assumptions that we carry around with us so that we can quickly (often inaccurately) judge and characterize others. Generational stereotypes, for example assuming that members of different generations want different things from work, such as having different preferences to work from home versus in a physical office, are misguided at best, and at worse present the opportunity for generationally based prejudice and discrimination (i.e., “generationalism”) to emerge. Moreover, certainly the pandemic has inflamed intergenerational tensions, which have always existed. There is a classic battle between “young” and “old,” and the resourced nature of various aspects of the pandemic (e.g., consider that vaccine rollouts have been stratified by age) is continuing to fuel such tensions.

EJ: How should we think about the needs of different workers if not by generation?

CR: Much like horoscopes, the idea of generations is a social construction. Generations don’t really exist outside of the labels we put on them (and the beliefs, values, etc. that we variously ascribe to them). There is far more value in understanding how workers needs change over time as they age and develop. Thus, taking a lifespan informed perspective – that is, recognizing individual differences in growth and change over the course of time, rather than assuming discrete generations exist and define groups of people – is a more advisable strategy for organizations seeking to address the differing needs of their age-diverse employees.

EJ: Do we think that there are no differences between generations?

CR: I think the science on this is clear. Generations do not exist in any objective sense; they are a figment of our (social) imaginations. However, people believe that generations exist, and that they matter in a variety of ways; we have developed remarkable narratives that describe their influence that pervade nearly every social institution, and this seems to be especially so in the workplace. This is complicated by the fact that researchers have no concrete methods for studying generations, and the result is that every study that has ever been conducted that purports to find evidence one way or the other for the existence of generational differences is wrong.

EJ: Surely starting your career in a pandemic is different to starting it in a boom time, awash with jobs?

CR: Absolutely, I agree – starting your career amidst the chaos of a pandemic and the ensuing global economic downturn is a challenge for many, and there is research on career entry during recessions that can speak to this. However, it’s important to point out that this is not necessarily a generational issue. Economic downturns affect the entire population, regardless of age or assumed generation.

Cort W. Rudolph
Associate Professor of Industrial & Organizational Psychology