Tension Between Generations Points to a Shift Away from Masculine Organizations

17281432455_2476dcef9e_z[We’re pleased to welcome Kristen Lucas of University of Louisville. Kristen recently published an article in Journal of Management Inquiry, entitled “Generational Growing Pains as Resistance to Feminine Gendering Organization? An Archival Analysis of Human Resource Management Discourses,” with co-authors Suzy D’Enbeau of Kent State University and Erica P. Heiden of College of Saint Mary.]

After being intrigued (or perhaps irked is a better word?) for quite a while about the bad rap Millennials were getting in the workplace, Erica sparked the idea for a project that would explore “kids these days!” complaints about different generations. At first, we weren’t sure how we could approach our research question in a way that wasn’t biased by retrospective judgments or insights. We contemplated blogs written by and/or about Millennials, trade books on generational differences, and interviews with HR managers. But none of those options seemed to get at how older adults complained (or not) about “kids these days.” Eventually, we realized that HR Magazine and, more specifically, archival issues of the magazine, would be just the source we needed.

One of the most fun aspects about this project was digging into the archives. Our university library stored the issues for each decade differently. The 1970 issues were available only on microfilm. The 1990 issues were bound and stored in the stacks. And the 2010 issues were available only online. Although electronic files would certainly be easier to work with, we knew we’d miss some really key information (like article placement, visual images, and ads). So we borrowed hard copies of the 2010 issues from the HR Director at Erica’s company.

The archival materials were visually striking—especially looking back on the 1970s issues with Mad Men-styled personnel men wearing skinny ties and heavy-framed glasses, and the 1990s issues with women wearing floppy bowties, big shoulder pads, and even bigger hairstyles. While the 2010 images didn’t look strange to us now, it did make us wonder what we will be saying about styles and images of work 10 or 20 years from now. (Might it be something about people sitting barefoot on couches as they work on laptop computers?) When we moved past the visual images and started JMI_72ppiRGB_powerpointfocusing on the written discourse, we found even more interesting insights.

As a Gen-Xer, I (Kristen) had taken my first full-time professional job in 1991. So I expected the 1990s issues to feel like a walk down memory lane. But instead, they seemed to represent a distant history that belonged to my mother’s generation, not mine. This project really brought to light how small, incremental changes can cumulate over time and how people’s sense of “what used to be” can be distorted. For Erica, the biggest surprise came from reading the 1970 issues and seeing how the Silent Generation complained about Baby Boomers. More than once she commented in her notes, “It sounds like they’re talking about Millennials!”

We used a feminist communicology of organization framework to analyze these discourses. You can read more about our approach and our findings in the article. But in a nutshell, we found that older workers have complained about young people for generations. In that regard, Millennials aren’t any different than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. But what is different is that Millennials’ unique expectations (like those for emotional support, feedback, and mentoring relationships) are deeply, yet subtly, gendered. So when HRM practices adapt to meet those expectations, the organization itself becomes more feminine. Therefore, we raise the possibility that frustrations expressed about Millennials also could be encompassing frustrations about the way feminine organizing practices are challenging traditionally masculine workplaces.

We hope our study will serve as an entry point for people to engage in meaningful dialogue about diversity in organizations that moves beyond surface-level stereotypes and recognizes the unique ways that difference intersects in overt and subtle ways.

The abstract:

Guided by a feminist communicology of organization framework, we examine generational growing pains by analyzing discourses appearing in HR Magazine at three different points in time, which approximately mark the midpoint of Baby Boomers’, Gen Xers’, and Millennials’ initial entry into the workplace. We reconstruct historically situated gendered discourses that encapsulate key concerns expressed by human resource management professionals as they dealt with younger generations of workers: Personnel Man as Father Knows Best (1970), Human Resource Specialist as Loyalty Builder (1990), and Talent Manager as Nurturer (2010). We propose that frustrations expressed by older generations about Millennials may not be because Millennials are necessarily more demanding than their predecessors, but instead because their expectations reflect and effect gendered changes of organizing.

You can read “Generational Growing Pains as Resistance to Feminine Gendering of Organization? An Archival Analysis of Human Resource Management Discourses” from Journal of Management Inquiry  free for the next two weeks by clicking here. Want to know all about the latest research from Journal of Management Inquiry Click here to sign up for e-alerts!

*Building image credited to Anne Marie Peterson (CC)


LucasKristen Lucas (PhD, Purdue University) is an associate professor in the Management Department at University of Louisville and a Gen Xer. Her expertise centers on how communication—from micro-level interactions to broader social discourses—constructs organizations, gives meaning to careers, and influences human flourishing and dignity in the workplace. She has published research in journals such as Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Business Ethics, Management Communication Quarterly, Communication Monographs, and Women’s Studies in Communication.

D'Enbeau, Suzy

Suzy D’Enbeau (PhD, Purdue University) is an assistant professor in the School of Communication Studies at Kent State University and a Gen Xer. Her research explores how social change organizations navigate competing goals in domestic and transnational contexts; problematizes dominant ways of thinking about, constructing, and performing gender in different organizational contexts and in popular culture; and unpacks some of the challenges of qualitative inquiry in terms of analysis and researcher identity. In addition to numerous book chapters, her work has appeared in leading journals such as Communication Monographs, Feminist Media Studies, Human Relations, Journal of Applied Communication Research, Qualitative Inquiry, Qualitative Communication Research, and Women’s Studies in Communication.

HeidenErica P. Heiden (MA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln) is a Millennial who works at Bailey Lauerman, an independent digital marketing and brand agency in Omaha, Nebraska. In her role as the agency’s Knowledge Strategist, she “makes people really smart, really fast.” In addition, she is an adjunct faculty member and head coach for the Speech Team at College of Saint Mary, also in Omaha. She has coauthored an article on the dark side of mentoring in Australian Journal of Communication.


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