Are Generations Really That Different?

A top-down view of a typewriter and a laptop situated back-to-back on a wooden table. The two represent the transition from analog to digital to accompany an article about generational differences in personality.

It’s easy to assume that baby boomers, Gen Z, millennial, and Gen X generations all differ significantly. After all, each generation entered the workforce under drastically different conditions. But how different are they in terms of personality? The Science of Personality cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, and Blake Loepp dive into decades of Hogan personality data to explore generational differences in personality.

A top takeaway from the data? It’s more valuable to focus on individual differences, not generational differences.

Studying Generational Differences in Personality

We naturally wonder whether generational differences in personality exist. In our daily lives, we encounter situations that can seem to be caused by generational differences, especially between people who grew up in significantly different technological eras. We also might be curious about whether the generation that entered the workforce during COVID-19 shows personality differences.

To address common questions about how to recruit candidates or motivate employees based on their generation, the Hogan data science team conducted an internal study about generational differences.

Regarding the methodology of the study, keep in mind that Hogan has collected personality data over the past few decades. Although age is often confounded with generation, the two aren’t the same. The data science team analyzed three factors that impacted the assessment: (1) the person’s age, (2) the person’s generation, and (3) when they took the assessment. For example, someone who is age 55 and belongs to Gen X might have taken the Hogan assessments 20 years ago at age 35; these data could differ from those of people aged 55 and 35 who take the assessments today. To keep those millions of data points in line, Hogan data scientists used age-period-cohort analysis. This method of statistical analysis allows analysts to separate age effects from time-period effects from birth cohort or generation effects. “The analysis is pretty simple, but the mathematics behind it are complex,” Ryne observed.

The truth is that data don’t always support commonplace assumptions about generational differences. We might assume that adults in the youngest generation have more sexual partners—but data prove that they don’t.1 Similarly, data show that there aren’t very many generational differences in personality at all.

Changes in Personality

On average, age effects represent a very small percentage of the personality pie, between five and 10 percent. Time-period effects represent somewhere between two and five percent of the pie. Generation effects represent somewhere between one and two percent of the pie. The rest of the pie is made up of individual differences unrelated to age, time period, or generation. “That’s the core part of the self that individuals take with them wherever they go and that makes up the majority of the variability in our assessment scores,” Ryne said.

Hogan data scientists analyzed data from all three assessments: the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), which describes everyday strengths; the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), which describes derailers, or potential shortcomings; and the Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI), which describes values, drivers, and unconscious biases. Together, these assessments draw a portrait of someone’s observable behavioral tendencies based on reputational data.

Environmental and Social Effects in Personality Data

The environment someone experienced as a young adult—a recession, depression, crisis, or pandemic—doesn’t seem to have a generational effect on personality.

Although we don’t see significant generational differences in personality assessment scores, scores can change over time. “We’ve seen a slight rise in [the HDS scale] Skeptical over the time period that the HDS has existed,” Ryne said. The Skeptical scale measures perception and insight, which can appear as cynicism or distrust when overused or unregulated. Ryne attributes this slight change to people becoming less trustful of institutions around the globe. Increased scores on Skeptical might also be related to the amount of information people are exposed to every day.

The study also revealed an increase in the MVPI Hedonism scale scores over the last two decades. The shift could stem from changes in societal attitudes about work-life balance. People around the globe might be more likely to embrace the “work hard, play hard” concept we associate with the Hedonism scale, which measures preference for fun, lighthearted, open-minded work environments. Time-period effects can affect our perceptions of generational differences; even though all people have shown increased Hedonism, people might attribute the change to younger generations only.

Age Effects in Personality Data

Personality is highly stable, even to the extent that personality in elementary school can predict adult personality 40 years later.2 Nonetheless, data show predictable changes in personality due to age.

Older people tend to score lower on average on many of the HDS scales, which is likely a sign of maturity. Describing older working adults, Ryne said, “You start finding different ways to deal with problems. Problems that you thought were a really big deal at one time aren’t actually that big of a deal. That just comes from experience.” The HPI scales and the MVPI scales show similar curvilinear effects in data, with some scale scores increasing and some decreasing over time depending on age.

Age Versus Generation Effects in Personality Data

Age effects trump generation effects. A person’s age is more likely to affect their personality than their generation is. In other words, the personality data of a baby boomer and a Gen Zer collected at the same age will show little to no difference because of generation, even though the time periods of the data may be separated by many years. “In this hypothetical world, 21-year-olds look like 21-year-olds, 40-year-olds look like 40-year-olds, 60-year-olds look like 60-year-olds—that’s just part of what it means to mature,” Ryne said.

When a person completes Hogan’s personality assessments, their results are scored using a global norm, which is a dataset collected from working adults around the world. This diverse sample is representative of the global working population. Up to 53 percent of the sample are under age 40, and about 47 percent are age 40 or older.

Hogan’s data show that early-career workers tend to be somewhat more emotional, bold, daring, and risk taking, on average. These personality strengths are likely to benefit someone with less work experience. In someone further advanced in their career, those same characteristics might seem immature or irresponsible. It makes sense for people to adapt their behavior as their roles change over time.

Takeaways from the Generational Differences Study

Hogan Assessments can provide a definitive answer to the question of generational differences in personality. “We’ve got millions of cases. In fact, there are no generational differences,” Ryne said.

What people want is not driven by belonging to a specific generation. If anything, it can be mildly affected by age. Adults entering the workforce today have characteristics in common with their baby boomer counterparts when the baby boomers were beginning their own careers. People who want to know how to recruit today’s generation should recall their own career goals when entering the workforce—such as stability with opportunity for development. However, neither generation nor age effects are the most significant factor in personality.

The greatest part of our personality comes from individual differences. Treating people as individuals rather than as members of a generation is the best approach in work and in life.

“Ignore generation. Ignore age,” Ryne said. “To me, it’s all about that individual focus.”

Listen to this conversation in full on episode 89 of The Science of Personality. Never miss an episode by following us anywhere you get podcasts. Cheers, everybody!


  1. Twenge, J. M., Sherman, R. A., & Wells, B. E. (2017). Declines in Sexual Frequency among American Adults, 1989-2014. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(8), 2389–2401.
  2. Hampson, S. E., & Goldberg, L. R. (2006). A First Large-Cohort Study of Personality-Trait Stability Over the 40 Years Between Elementary School and Midlife. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 763–779.