Professor Peter O'Connor, 28 July, 2020
Young workers lack resilience and “need hugging”, according to eminent Australian Ita Buttrose.
This week the 78-year old ABC chair told a forum of the Australia-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce:
They’re very keen on being thanked and they almost need hugging. That’s before COVID of course, we can’t hug any more. But they almost need hugging […] they seem to lack the resilience that I remember from my younger days.
Not surprisingly, many young people have been unimpressed by her comments. They’ve found older allies too, such as 80-year-old department store king Gerry Norman, who said every generation believed younger people weren’t as tough.
So are younger people really less resilient at work? Or is this simply an example of older people holding negative stereotypes about younger people?
Fortunately we have decades of research on personality change, mental health and even COVID-19 to answer this question.
Most research does clearly indicate younger people are – on average – less resilient than older people. They are more prone to stress, less emotionally stable and less tolerant of ambiguity than older people.
What drives these age-related differences is less clear. It is partly to do with maturity. People become more resilient as they age. A baby-boomer is likely to be more resilient than a millennial by the sheer fact of being older.
The bigger question is whether young people now are also less resilient than previous generations at the same age. On this the jury is still out, though some evidence does support Buttrose’s imputations.
A correlation, but it’s weak
In previous published research I have found younger people cope less well with work ambiguity, and more easily experience stress in response.
In recent months I have been collecting data on how Australian workers are coping with COVID-19 work changes. Preliminary analysis indicates younger people are more stressed and less satisfied than older workers – and these results are not due to the extra pressures experienced by young people (financial strains, having young children, etc).
However, it is important to note that while numerous studies confirm a “statistically significant” relationship between age and resilience, it’s comparatively weak.
In my data the correlations range from 0.1 to 0.3 (0 being no correlation and 1 being a perfect correlation). This indicated that while younger workers, on average, were less resilient than older workers, there were many exceptions. Some of the most resilient workers were young, and some of the least resilient were above 60.
So a young person can still be highly resilient.
Comparisons to past generations
As noted, the jury is still out on whether young workers today are less resilient than young workers in the past.
This is in part due to the methodological challenge of disentangling maturation from cohort effects, along with reconciling findings from studies conducted in different countries.
There is emerging research, however, that seeks to disentangle the maturation and cohort effects and suggests younger workers now are less resilient than young people used to be.
US psychology researchers Kenneth Stewart and Paul Bernhardt, for example, compared 2004-08 university students with pre-1987 undergraduates. They found the 2000s cohort had lower psychological health and higher narcissism – traits associated with low resilience.
Products of coddling?
One explanation for why resilience might be declining in young people is outlined in the 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff. It argues good intentions from adults and three “great untruths” have hurt young people’s resilience. The untruths are:
- what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker
- always trust your feelings
- life is a battle between good and evil people.
Lukianoff and Haidt suggest these messages (from overprotective parents and others) have reduced children’s exposure to the challenges and stressors they need to develop and flourish. They have also increased the tendency to engage in black-and white thinking.
The authors make a well-reasoned case consistent with much of the existing evidence.
Buttrose noted younger workers “like more transparency” and “need more reassurance and they need to be thanked”.
But let’s distinguish these issues from the question of resilience. Employees of all ages appreciate recognition and psychological safety. Such expectations are not a sign a worker lacks resilience.
So yes, it appears younger people today are less resilient than previous generations. But generational differences in resilience are small and probably exist due to a range of factors young people have little control over.
We should take care not to write off a range of effective workplace practices as unnecessary actions to appease non-resilient young people.