Engaging a Multigenerational Workforce

February 16, 2021

By Kelley Briggs
Companies today experience a much more diverse workforce than they have in the past. The age range among their employees is one of the widest in history, spanning from those born in the 1920's (the Silent Generation) to those born in the 1980's (the Millennials). With members of the Silent Generation staying in the workforce longer, and Millennials entering the workforce at a faster rate, it is important for companies to understand and manage the differences each generation brings to the company.

Companies today experience a much more diverse workforce than they have in the past. The age range among their employees is one of the widest in history, spanning from those born in the 1920's (the Silent Generation) to those born in the 1980's (the Millennials). With members of the Silent Generation staying in the workforce longer, and Millennials entering the workforce at a faster rate, it is important for companies to understand and manage the differences each generation brings to the company.

According to a recent WorldatWork study, “Rewarding a Multigenerational Workforce,” 90 percent of companies surveyed had between three and five generations currently working within their company, with 64 percent having four. This is an astounding number that speaks to the generational diversity that currently exists in the workforce.

Included in this list of generations are the Silent Generation (1925 - 1942), the Baby Boomers (1943-1960), Generation X (1961-1980) and the Millennials (1981-2000). With each generation comes its own ideals, strengths, weaknesses and working styles. It is important for companies to understand these differences and be able to keep them in mind when building team culture and designing recognition programs.

Silent Generation (1925 - 1942)

The Silent Generation is considered to take far fewer risks, favor direction by superiors more than freedom in the workplace, and dislike change. Having grown up during the Great Depression, it is easy to see how this experience shaped this generation’s beliefs.

In addition, the Silent Generation tends to favor lifelong employment with the same organization, and with a set pension. They also prefer step-by-step direction when training, and prefer to know what to do as opposed to why to do something.

Overall, this generation is very committed to the job and believes age and experience are the keys to getting rewarded and receiving promotions.

Baby Boomers (1943 - 1960)

Baby Boomers make up a significant part of the population, and throughout the majority of their lives have ruled the discussions in the workplace. As the transition in the workforce shifts to Generation X and the Millennials, it will be important to consider the Boomers and what they value.

Similar to the Silent Generation, the Boomers prefer to know more of the what than the why, but on the other hand, the Boomers tend to be lifelong learners who believe in the value of teamwork and expect everyone in the team to produce. Likewise, Boomers expect to be rewarded for their contributions, as should everyone else with a strong work ethic.

Generation X (1961 - 1980)

In contrast to the Boomers, Generation X is the smallest generation. They are typically independent, not intimidated by authority, are comfortable with technology and are creatively cautious.

Other features that define this generation are commitment to family, preference for less structure, openness to change and the ability to multitask and adapt on the fly. Given their strong commitment to family, Gen X’ers prefer having a work-life balance and seek out ways to obtain this.

Even though they favor work-life balance, members of Generation X are also results-oriented and require constant feedback to ensure they are achieving desired results. This is the first generation as a whole to not only ask the what of getting things done, but also the why.

Millennials (1981 - 2000)

Millennials are the newest generation to join the workforce. A great deal of research has been done recently to try and understand the inner workings of this group.

One factor that has helped shape this generation is that it has the lowest parent-to-child ratio in history. The family life for this generation as a whole has been significantly different than other generations, and for this reason it is speculated that this generation deals better with chaos than calm. Millennials tend to favor change and are more comfortable with fluidity rather than maintaining the status quo. Teamwork is important for Millennials, and they are adept at multi-tasking and adapting.

This generation has grown up with television its entire life and generally likes constant stimulation due to a shorter attention span. Millennials maintain a very active lifestyle and prefer to stay busy at work, but also require deadlines and structure to help rein in their efforts.

Generational Consideration in Recognition

So what does all of this mean for managing across the generations? It means that now, more than ever generational differences should be addressed. Each generation has its own learning styles and set of values, and each requires different kinds of support from managers. Differences in the generations should be addressed in all aspects of managing, including how you provide feedback and recognition.

That said, according to the WorldatWork study, a majority of survey respondents indicated that the recent increase in awareness of generational differences “has not led to a significant change in the design of total rewards programs.” The study goes on to state that currently, 56 percent of the companies surveyed do not give any consideration to generational differences when designing total rewards programs.

Only 19% of organizations with recognition programs consider generational differences when designing their recognition programs.

When addressing recognition programs specifically, 85 percent of the survey's respondents currently have recognition programs in their organization. However, only 19 percent of these respondents give any thought to generational differences and needs when designing their recognition programs. This brings to mind the question: What good is a recognition program if it is not effectively designed to motivate and inspire the people it is targeted for? In fact, only 21 percent of the companies surveyed gave themselves a “B” or higher when assigning a letter grade to their efforts in rewarding a multigenerational workforce.

Determining the Right Rewards

The right rewards are critical for implementing a successful recognition program in a multigenerational workforce. Without the proper reward for good performance, workers will quickly become disheartened and disengaged, and their motivation will decline. While some individuals perform based on intrinsic rewards alone, extrinsic recognition tied to key behaviors for the organization can help keep all employees engaged and performing to their full capacity. So how do you know what recognition and rewards to give?

Everyone values rewards differently. Reward preferences can be generalized by generation, and these generational differences can be very helpful in determining the mix of rewards and incentives offered. Having a reward choice available with a large variety of tangible items to choose from allows everyone in each generation a choice of what he or she values. This ensures that the reward maintains its value and keeps employees motivated.

While many companies strive to ensure their recognition programs are effective, generational differences should also be taken into account to maximize their effectiveness.

What are the next steps for organizations that want to consider generational differences in their recognition program?

1. Bring in people from a variety of generations and departments to assist in designing a recognition strategy.

One of the simplest ways to get inside the heads of each generation is to involve each of them in the process of designing your recognition strategy. Including individuals from a variety of backgrounds will help ensure that each generation’s needs are considered during the recognition program design.

2. Align the goals of the organization to the rewards and recognition that is provided to your workforce.

Each generation behaves in different ways and has a different idea about what goals are important. Align the recognition program with the goals of the organization, after evaluating input from the multigenerational team. By aligning the behaviors that get rewarded with what is best for the organization, each generation will know exactly what is key to the organization's success.

3. Discuss the “what” and the “why.”

Many companies have three or more generations currently in their workforce, so it is important to discuss the “what” of what needs to be accomplished as well as the “why.” The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers tend to focus on the “what” and Generation Y and the Millenials tend to focus on the “why.”

It will be important when communicating the new recognition program to the workforce that both the “what” and the “why” are discussed. Doing so will ensure buy-in across the generational groups and will increase the effectiveness of the program.

4. Provide a variety of rewards.

Just like the differences in values and learning styles, each generation will also favor different rewards. Providing rewards that are valued is critical to engaging employees, regardless of their generational group. Without some kind of valued reward, there is no motivation to perform in a way that is consistent with the organization's goals.

5. Constantly measure and reassess.

As your workforce changes, it is important to constantly measure and reassess your recognition strategy. Are your programs still meeting the goals they set out to accomplish? Is there anything new or different about the workforce that should be considered?

Lastly, it is important to remember that generational differences do not fit neatly within their own silos.

Every person within the organization behaves differently. Although many generalities about generations are helpful, every person is different and recognition efforts must reflect that.