Generational Differences with Particular Emphasis on the Younger Generations

Michelle Bertelsen

Student thesis: Master thesis


The purpose of this thesis is to, first, explore how leaders understand and make sense of generational differences and especially young generations, and, second, unfold the potential implications of these sensemakings for organizations and interactions across generations. In addition, this paper examines to what extent popular representations and stereotypes of young generations portrayed by the media and literature are reflected in the leaders’ sensemaking. The ambition is to unfold sensemakings as a phenomenon across organizational settings, as opposed to exploring one specific organization and its leaders’ understandings. Thus, the empirical data consists of nine semi-structured interviews with leaders from different organizations in Denmark. Building on both social constructivist and hermeneutic perspectives, the investigation is based on qualitative data and, conclusions therefore includes interpretations. The theoretical framework consists of Sensemaking Theory (Weick, 2005, 2009) and Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Hogg & Terry, 2000). Sensemaking is applied in order to unfold how leaders establish meaning about generations, and Social Identity Theory is deployed to understand those meanings in relation to the leaders’ social identities and group interactions, which enables a discussion of implications for organizations. The main findings of this thesis are that leaders’ meanings of young generations appear to be ambiguous. On the one hand, leaders describe young people as a large and very necessary resource within organizations due to their technical superiority, ability to challenge the status quo, and stimulate change. On the other hand, leaders ascribe several negative characteristics to young generations and find it challenging to understand their needs and behaviors, as they differ from those of the leaders and older generations. Furthermore, the leaders identify mostly with colleagues of their own age or older, which creates a distance to the young employees. Consequently, stereotypes and biases are used in interactions between leaders and particularly young generations, which can result in discrimination. Previous studies have examined the use of age stereotypes and discrimination against older generations (Posthuma m.fl., 2012; Gordon & Arvey, 2004). However, age related stereotyping and discrimination against younger generations have only received limited scholarly attention. This study thus makes a two-fold contribution to the literature on generation related age stereotypes and discrimination. First, this study extends the existing literature by shedding light on the stereotyping and discrimination placed upon younger generations by leaders. Second, the thus far underexplored implications for leaders’ interactions with younger generations are unfolded. In turn, this study paves the way for a new line of research.

EducationsMSc in Psychology, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2019
Number of pages191