Since about the birth of boomers, comparing the strengths and weaknesses of generations has been a perilous exercise almost guaranteed to cause offense.
So when Australia’s Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner offered an “interesting” aside on generational differences while addressing senators in Parliament House on Thursday, there was little chance it would pass unnoticed.
Referring to the “Pearls in Policing Conference” held in Sydney this week, where he sat next to police officers from Toronto and the United States, Commissioner Reece Kershaw said: “We learned that Gen Z, the younger generation, need three times a week praise from their supervisors, the next generation only need three times a year, and my generation only need once a year.”
The comment prompted raised eyebrows in the Australian parliamentary room, and no end of commentary on social media discussing the relative neediness of the nation’s youngest workers.
The matter may have petered out, but the AFP sought to clarify the issue on Friday with a two-line statement: “Reports that AFP Commissioner believes different generations require different level of praise are incorrect. The Commissioner was referring to information recently presented to a policing forum.”
That information came from Michael McQueen, a social researcher and author of several books, including “How to Prepare Now for What’s Next,” who presented at the conference.
McQueen told CNN the statistics are based on research conducted by global analytics firm Gallup and multinational software company Workhuman, who surveyed more than 10,000 adults across the US in February this year.
According to the Gallup website, the survey found that “nearly four in 10 employees in the youngest generation of workers would prefer to be recognized by their people manager at least a few times a week.”
“It is not about being ‘needy’ or wanting participation trophies. Recognition provides the ingredients for employees to grow,” the website said.
‘The world’s changing, I guess’
Other research shows that assessing workers’ needs based on their generation is misguided.
A paper published in 2021 said research doesn’t support the existence of generational differences, meaning there was nothing to ‘manage’. “Much of what lay people observe as ‘generational’ at work is likely more accurately attributed to either age or career stage effects masquerading as generational differences,” the report said.
In 2020, a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that “categorizing workers with generational labels like ‘baby boomer’ or ‘millennial; to define their needs and behaviors is not supported by research, and cannot adequately inform workforce management decisions.”
“Instead of relying on generational stereotypes, employers and managers should focus on individuals’ work needs,” the research found.
McQueen, who is a millennial, agrees that an individual approach is best, but says there’s “value in understanding broad patterns of human behavior and experience.”
He says the differing levels of desire for praise originate at home.
“Over the last few decades, there’s been a lot of really good research looking at how trends in parenting and education to an extent, but especially parenting, how that has changed the way generations are growing up and how much feedback they’re looking for,” said McQueen.
“The challenge with that is, it’s based on this flawed premise that you can give another human being self-esteem, which you sort of can’t,” he said.
He said he’s more “intentional” about giving praise to younger staff, and he encourages businesses – and police forces – to do the same.
During his appearance on Thursday, Kershaw also offered up what he’d learned about emojis.
“I saw some emojis that Gen Z use that are actually offensive. But my generation is sending these emojis, so the world’s changing, I guess, is what I’m saying,” he said.
When asked by a puzzled participant which emojis his generation was sending, Kershaw explained: “Like a happy face. That can actually mean the opposite in Gen Z land. Happy to give you a briefing on that,” he said to laughter.
For older readers wondering what a smiley face really means, it can be interpreted as “extreme passive aggression.”
“I think the safest one is just the super clear, obvious, big grin with teeth,” said McQueen. “At least it’s a proper smile.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested Australia's Federal Police Commissioner addressed a senate committee on Wednesday. It was Thursday.