Despite long-held beliefs, generational differences do not mean employees require different motivators to remain excited about their jobs. And the experts agree. Sort of.
survey of more than 3,000 employees found the leading determinant in employee engagement across all age groups is strategic direction/ leadership (management’s ability to demonstrate this in a way that builds confidence in the prospects for long-term corporate success), followed by rewards (effective pay and benefits), and communication (frequent, clear and two-way). Only the 30 to 39 age group had rewards first and strategic direction/leadership second.
“We hear so much in research and media and books relative to generational differences (we) wanted to look at the data to see if it’s true,” said Deborah Horsefield, practice leader, organization effectiveness at Watson Wyatt in Toronto. “Although yes, there were differences in perceptions, there were some very strong similarities.”
The 30 to 39 age group’s deviance from the rest can be attributed to the stage of life they’re in, Horsefield said. They’re establishing themselves in their careers and tend to make the most job shifts during this time. They’re also focused on marriage and family.
Merrill Brinton, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Human Resource Professionals, always felt there were more common threads between generations than he was hearing.
“In the back of my mind was always this nagging wonder: Can’t we have similar values? How can we always be so different? These (drivers) are things we all desire in the workplace,” said Brinton, who is also a partner at accounting firm Meyers Norris Penny.
“There’s an idea in general that there (isn’t) a lot of commonality between generations,” Horsefield said. “What we realize is that we can’t rely on the myth that employee engagement and drivers differ between age groups.”
Nina Cole, an associate professor in the faculty of business at Ryerson University in Toronto, wasn’t surprised at the similar answers because the engagement drivers are “pretty broad categories.”
“It doesn’t mean there aren’t still differences between the generations in terms of the way they want to do their work and their levels of loyalty,” she said. “What motivates you to excel is not always the same thing that motivates you to stay in a job for a long-term basis.”
For example, rewards to a baby boomer mean a good pension, while to a Generation Xer it means health benefits, Cole said. Within communication, older workers who accept authority figures would appreciate a personal visit from a senior manager or the CEO, while younger, tech-savvy employees want details via e-mail.
Horsefield said the study shows employers “may want to rethink how we address these age groups.” That includes programs that target specific generations, which “can actually diminish employee engagement.”
Horsefield said the study didn’t track individual programs, but industry experts say they include benefits such as youth initiatives, working part-time, elder-care leave and pensions.
But Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Business in Ottawa, said such programs are essential.
“There are some pretty profound differences in workplaces right now,” she said. “We need to make sure we have a wide variety of initiatives and make sure we’re not leaving anyone out.”
It’s a tricky balance to find, said Cole. A work-life balance program is thought to be important to Generation X, who are focused on family, and baby boomers who may have elder care to deal with. But such a program would be too early for Generation Y, and the mature, hardworking older generation without children or elderly parents would not be interested.
Ironically, the study also found only 44 per cent of respondents trust their company’s leadership. That lack of trust “is not age specific” and is the biggest problem Duxbury sees in the workplace.
Baby boomers have heard it all before and have seen hundreds of programs that haven’t worked, she said. Generation X saw promises made, but not followed through. The youngest generations saw their parents work hard and dumped in the 1990s.
“Organizations have lost trust across the line because they’ve focused on the bottom line and not on people for the last 20 years,” she said. “You’re not going to get it back by saying, ‘I’ve changed. I’m a better person now.’ (Businesses) have to spend time and money at the leadership level. People don’t trust companies, they trust managers.”
Carly Foster is an Ajax, Ont.-based freelance writer.