Generation discrimination: Don’t miss out on high potential employees

To survive in the fast changing business world, employers know they’ve got to recruit and retain employees with potential; people with the ability to adjust to a continuously changing work environment and to grow into challenging new roles. Many rise to this challenge by zoning in primarily on ‘young professionals’, but this narrow focus is a missed opportunity.

1st March 2017


By Linda Vodegel Matzen and Marit Op de Beek, Cubiks Netherlands

A wealth of research shows that the personality traits linked to potential have a stronger presence within those who are from Gen X and older than they do in Millennials. Excluding these individuals leaves a rich source of high potential employees untapped.


Potential versus competencies

Many organisations are concerned about a growing shortage of talented employees worldwide (Mosley, 2015). This is a real threat, because adequate deployment of talent is the answer to an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world. The importance of finding and retaining talented employees necessitates an evolution in HR’s approach to selecting and developing people.

The result is a shift in focus; moving away from measuring competences and skills and stepping closer towards identifying potential. This focus on potential is the central message in the influential article ‘21st Century Talent Spotting’, by Fernández-Aráoz (2014), which has been endorsed by a large number of organisations. Aráoz offers practical guidelines for identifying talented employees based on their potential.

According to Aráoz, managers should judge current and future employees on four potential indicators:
            1. Curiosity
            2. Engagement
            3. Determination
            4. Insight.

These indicators provide a framework for thoroughly assessing an individual’s potential. This can help enhance selection processes, but can also aid development and retention.


Popular assumptions

The Millennial generation is currently a popular focus when it comes to recruiting for potential. When asked why there is a focus on Millennials, the responses of HR Professionals who deal with recruitment, selection and development of employees are wide-ranging. There are arguments that have a rational basis, such as the need to ensure a steady influx to balance attrition.

At the same time, there are arguments based on implicit assumptions. Examples of these are; young people are more flexible, inventive, ambitious, they bring new insights, they adapt easily to rapid change and won’t give in when it comes to working with technology. Similarly, there are assumptions when it comes to older generations, with the potential of Millennials set in positive contrast.

Intuitively, many may be prone to go along with these popular assumptions. However, the question is whether some of those assumptions can be proven based on data.


Exploring indicators of potential across age groups

The popular assumptions about the differences between generations are usually expressed in terms of personality traits which would have a positive or negative effect on the aforementioned potential indicators. The Cubiks team conducted some research looking at how these traits, as well as cognitive ability varied over a cross section of age groups. We wanted to understand whether there was really any basis for the common assumptions about age and potential.

Our study compared three age groups:

  • Millennials (year of birth between 1980 - 2000)
  • Generation X (year of birth between 1960 - 1980)
  • Baby Boomers (year of birth between 1946 - 1960).

To assess the potential across these groups, we mapped traits in our PAPI personality questionnaire to the four indicators of potential mentioned above. In addition, we combined this data with results from our Logiks General ability test. This is important because it was expected that the ´Insight´ potential indicator could be influenced by intellectual capacity. The theory here is that greater intellectual capacity makes it easier to create insight, as it equips people to quickly evaluate new, complex situations and come to the correct conclusions.


Excluding older generations means missing out on huge potential

Our findings highlight that employers should be questioning an approach based on ‘generation discrimination’. For the most part, the personality traits of older generations form an equally firm basis for potential to the personality characteristics of the younger generations studied. And when it comes to ability, there was very little difference across the generations.

In summary, here is what our study found:

  • For 6 of the personality scales, all the generations showed similar average scores.
  • For one of the personality traits, namely ´Conceptual´, Millennials scored significantly higher than the two older generations. Therefore, here the popular assumption holds true.
  • For all the remaining 10 personality traits there is a significant difference between the generations, however, the differences contradict the popular assumptions. For these personality traits Millennials score ´least favorably´. 
  • There are no significant differences in intellectual capacity between the younger and the older generation. The only difference that could be ascertained here is that the young work a bit faster than the old.


Our recommendations for identifying potential

Organisations are therefore advised to not only look for high potential employees exclusively from a pool of young professionals. This study highlights that the talent pool of those over 40 years old also offers great potential. These candidates present a personality profile that provides a good starting point for them to respond to emerging business trends and to grow into challenging new roles.   

When looking to identify potential, we recommend that a scan of each individual’s characteristics, including personality traits, is made at an early stage. With the range of assessments on the market, this is relatively easy to implement online. When this profile is combined with additional measures such as cognitive ability tests and assessments of motivation, employers will have a solid basis for identifying an initial pool of potential talent. Bringing this data together with the organisation’s specific hard criteria, HR will be equipped to make the best decisions when it comes to selecting people with the highest potential for success in certain roles.


If you’d like to read the full findings of this study, please fill in the form below or email and we’ll send you the report.



Study originally published in LoopbaanVisie.


  • Cubiks (2014). PAPI 3 User Manual
  • Cubiks (2015). Logiks Manual, version 18.
  • Egelie, J. & Dun, Z. van (2011). Werkvermogen van de oudere werknemer in beeld; oud en volop potentie. In LoopbaanVisie, 2011 (1), pp. 31 - 25
  • Fernández-Aráoz, C. (2014). 21st Century Talent Spotting. In Harvard Business Review, June issue, pp. 46 – 56
  • Mosley, R. (2015). CEOs Need to Pay Attention to Employer Branding. In Harvard Business Review, May  issue.

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