Generational Learning Differences: Myth or Reality?
Compared to differences between generations there are probably few questions in learning and development where people have expressed so many different opinions. Where does that leave learning and development professionals when it comes to figuring out what matters in designing workplace training?
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Generations in the Workforce
Talking about generational differences is difficult because while there is vague agreement on dates and labels, there is also variation. For the purpose of this blog posting, we’ll use the dates and labels defined here.
|Birth years||Generation label|
|1925 – 1945||Traditionalists|
|1946 – 1964||Baby Boomers|
|1965 – 1980||Generation X (Gen X)|
|1981 – 2000||Millennials|
Research on generational differences in the workforce has focused on white collar or knowledge workers and ignored people in blue collar jobs. Because the research is based on workers with a college education, this posting uses the date for entering the workforce as 22-years-of-age.
Today’s workforce has a few Traditionalists who are continuing to work beyond the typical retirement age. Baby Boomers are just beginning to retire and will continue to retire for the next 19 years. Gen X is fully engaged in the workforce (as far as employment conditions allow). They’ll start reaching retirement age in 2032. Millennials began entering the workforce in 2003 and will continue entering the workforce until 2022. Clearly our training must be effective for a wide age range. Is it possible to design training that is appropriate for workers spanning an age range from 22- to 67-years-old (or more)?
Meeting learners’ needs when creating custom training involves considering multiple factors: learning objectives, technical savvy, training delivery location and access, development budget, and more. See Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners for elearning considerations that can affect learners with disabilities.
Learning Trends across Generations
There are numerous factors that differentiate generations. An important question for workplace learning professionals is, “Do those factors influence how people learn?” Nickie Carstarphen, a trainer at NorthgateArsinio, says a major factor in workplace learning preference is the predominant educational trends during a student’s formal education. Nickie uses diagrams similar to the ones shown here to characterize three generations of educational trends.
Baby Boomers were taught in a linear fashion. They read books. Not only that, they read books from cover-to-cover. They were taught by lecture. Prevalent learning technologies included overhead projectors, filmstrips, and some video. Does anyone remember mimeographed handouts? How about that smell? Did you use a slide rule?
Gen Xers were taught in pods or modules. When they did research, they used the index in books to find the information they needed. They didn’t read books cover-to-cover. They learned in a structured environment that included some lecture and small group activities. Were their minds affected by what we affectionately refer to as “Death by PowerPoint?” These students had calculators. In 1980 there was one computer for every 92 students in U.S. public schools.
Millennials were taught in a more constructivist environment. They did research in a networked structure. When asked to investigate a topic they would most likely turn to a computer. They wondered why anyone would consider reading a book. They were the first entire generation of digital natives. Their learning environment accommodated flexibility. They had unlimited information available at their fingertips and were comfortable changing focus quickly. Some Millennials have not yet graduated from college. Their new blackboard is the iPad. Times have changed!
Changes in educational tools and trends require us to consider digital literacy. According to learning guru Marc Prensky, Millennials (digital natives) are comfortable with computer technology. In comparison, digital immigrants—those who learned to use computers later in life—are less facile with computers.
Does that mean Baby Boomers should learn through face-to-face training or books while Millennials should participate in computer-mediated learning? No, it just means that Baby Boomers acquired computer skills later in life than Gen Xers or Millennials. I think we all know exceptions to the stereotype of Millennials being more computer savvy than Baby Boomers. The important consideration is that digital immigrants probably need more explicit instructions and guidance when learning with digital media. Never assume a computer interaction will be obvious or intuitive (unless perhaps you’re an Apple user interface designer).
For other factors influencing a training methodology selection, consider “Choosing a Training Method: 3 Things to Consider,” by Microassist Senior Learning Architect Kevin Gumienny.
Designing Workplace Learning
Having considered educational trends and computer skills, it’s important to note that the nature of a subject has a lot to do with the way it is taught. For example, some topics have to be taught in a linear manner. Some have definite right and wrong answers while others allow multiple correct options. The subject matter has a lot to do with the way training is structured, regardless of the target audience.
Another thing to think about is that formal education is supposed to provide a foundation of understanding. College graduates enter the workforce with general knowledge required to do a job. That means workplace training is often not foundational knowledge and skills. It is typically focused on a narrow topic. Today we expect training to be available at the time and place we need it.
In Do Generational Differences Matter in Instructional Design?, John Cone, former head of Dell Learning, is quoted as saying, “The ideal learning event at Dell has a class size of one, lasts 5 to 10 minutes, and takes place within 10 minutes of when someone recognizes that he or she needs to know something. Our challenge is to reduce learning to its smallest, most-useful increments and to put the learner in charge of the entire process.”
Regardless of generation, that sounds like good instruction customized to the learner’s need.
So what are the right answers for designing multi-generation workplace training? Thomas Reeves, professor at The University of Georgia, concludes Do Generational Differences Matter in Instructional Design? with some helpful observations.
- There are generational differences worthy of consideration with respect to attitudes, work habits, and motivators that anyone managing cross-generational teams should understand. It is not recommended to make assumptions about any one individual, regardless of gender or other factors, based upon his/her membership in a chronological generational cohort.
- “The major question addressed in this review is whether generational difference is a variable important enough to be considered during the design of instruction or the use of different educational technologies. At this time, the weight of the evidence is negative. Generational differences are evident in the workplace, but they are not salient enough to warrant that specification of different instructional designs or the use of different learning technologies.”
- “Generational differences research suffers from many of the same weaknesses found in learning styles research. An extensive review of the learning styles literature (Coffield, Moseley, Hall & Ecclestone, 2004) throws grave doubt on the validity and utility of employing learning styles as a basis for accommodating students of any generation.”
Microassist is a 30-year custom training development company. We work with our clients to create effective, engaging training and will walk you through which format is best for your particular learning group. Please contact us today to discuss your learning project and see how we can help.
- Do Generational Differences Matter in Instructional Design? (PDF), Thomas C. Reeves, The University of Georgia
- Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (PDF), Marc Prensky
- Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II: Do They Really Think Differently? (PDF), Marc Prensky
- Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review (PDF), Coffield, Moseley, Hall, and Ecclestone, http://www.lsda.org.uk/files/pdf/1543.pdf (retrieved February 2, 2006; no longer available)
Updated 8/20/2018, with links to relevant blog articles and pages.