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Premium Incentive Products Magazine - Products and Ideas That Inspire Performance

Generation Gaps

Another Look at What Drives Motivation


s recruiting, retaining and motivating highly talented employees of all ages becomes ever more critical to an organization, managers have been empowered to attract, retain and develop multi-generational talent and to acquire the necessary skills to ensure corporate success.

For the first time in our history, the U.S. workforce is comprised of people from four generations that at times spans more than 50 years.

Never before has there been such a diverse group in the corporate population. Working side-by-side are traditionalists, employees who are of the so-called Silent Generation (born from 1920 to 1945), baby boomers (born 1946 to 1967), generation X (born 1965 to 1980) and generation Y, also known as the millennials (born 1981 to 2000).

But as employee populations change—as baby boomers retire, gen X'ers are promoted to management and millennials are hired into junior roles—incentives and rewards will need to reflect this demographic shift to motivate performance, maximize employee potential and boost a company's competitive edge.

So how can you make sure that all these generations work well together?

Start by knowing what makes each generational group tick. You have to understand what each generation values and what motivates them at work and at play, in order to learn how to tap those motivations to make all your employees work well together.

The Silent Generation, or Traditionalists

Millions of Americans age 55 and over are either still working or are seeking work. In one AARP study of mature workers, 40 percent to 50 percent of those polled said they would work past retirement age if offered flexible schedules, part-time and temporary employment. They liked the idea of re-entering the job market or keeping a foot in the labor pool. These days as well, many workers continue past retirement because they have to, strictly for financial reasons.

Employees who fall into this age group have generally had predictable career paths, working hard for one or two companies and moving up the ladder of success. They are characterized by their dedication to their employer, and as a group are considered to be non-risk-takers and conformers. They are less willing to spend money on themselves, so non-cash recognition is key. They prefer flexible schedules, health and fitness opportunities, entertainment venues and technology items.

For the silent generation, the more formal and public the recognition, the better. One way to publicly recognize and motivate this group might be to take photographs of top performers as they are being congratulated by the company president and then hang the pictures in the lobby, or to write articles about their achievements to print in the employee newsletter. Some companies engrave a plaque with the names of employees who have reached 10, 15, 20 or more years of service and display it prominently.

Workers of the silent generation are pioneers of the team approach, and they value programs that recognize the contributions and successes of teams. More than any other group, these workers value incentives that help them to plan for the future.

The Baby Boomers

Baby boomers make up the largest population of today's workers, although that number will fast dwindle over the next 10 years. This group came of age at a time of economic prosperity in the United States. It is a generation that likes to win, to be in charge and to make an impact. Having grown up in post-war prosperity, boomers were the focus of society—and, as a result, they can be self-indulgent.

This is the first generation that hasn't had to live with the notion that what you're trained to do, you do for the rest of your life. They move easily from one career to the next, and from one company to another—which makes retaining them a challenge.

Many baby boomers are well-traveled and have seen and done far more than their parents. They live for new experiences and adventures.

"There are two things people want more than sex and money…recognition and praise," is a famous quote by Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics.

She might have been talking about baby boomers.

Boomers like to be pampered. Realizing this, Nordstrom Inc., a Seattle-based department store chain with many long-term employees in this age group, created the Pacesetter Award for top sales among employees.

At other companies, managers neglect to recognize the people they work with. They forget to give their people a pat on the back—and then those same managers are puzzled why their company has a reputation for giving bad service. Not at Nordstrom. Their managers at every corporate level work hard to make sure their colleagues know that they are appreciated.

Pacesetters are given a personalized certificate of merit, business cards and note cards emblazoned with the Pacesetter designation, and a 33 percent store discount credit card (13 percent more than the regular employee discount) for one year, and a cash reward, which varies, depending upon how many years the individual achieved Pacesetter status. After 10 years with the company, Pacesetters receive a Nordstrom stock award, which varies depending upon how many years they have achieved Pacesetter status.

As many baby boomers choose to remain in the workforce beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, incentives that give them more free time are highly valued.

Generation X

Gen-X employees are a fiercely independent bunch, self-directed and resourceful. They entered the working world in a time of downsizing and cutbacks, and are skeptical of authority and institutions. As a result, their first loyalty is to themselves.

This group seeks a work environment that is exciting, challenging and meaningful. In the right setting, they can be loyal, committed, focused and energized, and will give 110 percent to their job.

Gen X'ers are often motivated by opportunities that let them interact with their managers. Gen X'ers are also a group that is used to having fun. They are motivated by a free-spirited workplace, whether that's through company sporting activities or fun office events and competitions.

Training is also an effective reward for Gen X'ers, who have an endless desire for information and to add to their skills, especially technology skills.

Generation Y

Also known as the Millennials or Echo Boomers, this generation represents the largest consumer group in the history of the United States. This is a group that wants it all—now. That's the Gen Y mantra—but are Millennials really that different from previous generations?

Spencer Toomey, vice president of sales for The Corporate Marketplace Inc., based in North Kingstown, R.I., offers a resounding "Yes. And no."

This group prefers meaningful work starting from day one of their careers—not after 10 years of working their way up the ladder. Many in this group prefer to work from home. ("What's the use of having technology if you don't take advantage of it?") They are willing to take on new challenges and responsibilities, but not at the cost of enjoying life and the relationships they value with friends and family. And if you get them excited about work opportunities to learn, grow and make a difference, they're going to work longer and harder because they want to, not because they have to.

Author-lecturer Elizabeth Kearny, the founder of Kearney & Associates: The Experts' Alliance, consulting services, agrees. Kearny, whose firm specializes in strategic planning and generational issues, has written that in most cases, Gen Y's interests, approaches, attitudes and work ethics are markedly different from those of their parents and grandparents, yet appropriately approached, they can add a great deal to a team. The Millennials are technologically savvy, optimistic and definitely entrepreneurial in their approach to work. For them multi-tasking is natural, writes Kearny, and project managers need to recognize and utilize their abilities to the advantage of the companies for which they work.

One constant remains: Make them feel valued and appreciated and do so through feedback. Millennials are very important to the current workforce. In fact, Xerox and other Fortune-type companies view them as the future of their organization.

One Note of Caution

While generalizations and stereotypes can help organizations design recognition plans to appeal to their workforce, recognizing the uniqueness of each individual (regardless of generation) is the key to employee engagement and motivation. Often, the more public the recognition, the more powerful the effect, but there are employees who are embarrassed and subsequently de-motivated by public recognition.

This is one example of where employee preferences vary, and because a manager is usually trying to motivate and retain many different types of individuals, they need enough flexibility to adapt the plan as needed.

The Right Steps

Marcia Rhodes, a spokesperson for WorldatWork, a nonprofit professional association dedicated to knowledge leadership in total rewards, compensation, benefits and work-life, suggests taking the following steps to design the best plan for your organization:

  • Establish program objectives, measurements and a budget.
  • Select the best recognition alternatives—formal/informal, immediate/long-term, public/non-public, individual/team.
  • Determine legal requirements and tax liability.
  • Integrate recognition into the total rewards program.
  • Prepare the action plan.
  • Educate managers and train plan leaders.
  • Communicate heavily throughout implementation, and regularly thereafter.
  • Consistently evaluate effectiveness through employee surveys and other feedback mechanisms.

Stay in Touch

What should incentive program planners do to ensure they are motivating all of the generations in their workforce? "The answer is deceptively simple," Toomey said. '"Have a focus group amongst your employees. Bring in representatives from each generation and say, 'OK, here is what we are planning to do. What do you think about it? This is what we've done in the past. How did it work? What are your thoughts? What will motivate you?' Let them tell you what will work for them."

Robert W. Wendover, director of The Center for Generational Studies, agrees. Wendover observes that we live in a world that is becoming increasingly fragmented. "Different people look for different things," he said. "This is a world of specialization. The more information that those individuals can gather of note about each group and what turns them on, what gets them involved and then tailor programs, tailor incentives to those different needs the better the program is going to work. Choice is what it is all about these days. Choice and access."

There is no simple way to motivate a 23-year-old who views work as a hobby in the same way as a 45-year-old Type A personality who wants everyone in the company to know about his every accomplishment. These two age groups live in separate worlds.

Here are some other examples of where the generational gaps may become obvious:

  • Retirement planning and child or elder care is attractive to gen X or baby boomers but gen Y will take a pass.
  • An informal workplace will appeal to gen X and Y, but not to baby boomers.
  • Gen Y employees will smile when technological advances are implemented, whereas baby boomers will like it when they are promoted to a position of status.

Too many times people guess at what their employees want and never ask them. But if you hold a focus group and bring each individual in there, you may find out that they're closer together in what they want than what you anticipated. What they want may be entirely something you haven't thought of.

Yes, there are distinct differences in what motivates different generations. But, say experts, there are also incentive programs that motivate everyone.

Feeling a part of what the company is trying to accomplish, feeling like you are a valuable member of the team—that crosses all age groups.

There are some other universals, Wendover explained. "If you are in a sales situation there are certain universal sales principals about how to incent individuals. If you are in a manufacturing environment, the incentives are different from when you're in a sales situation. In every case, you have to look and see what a person appreciates. Almost universally, people like time off, and more flexibility on the job in terms of times and schedules. Because that gives them more control over their increasingly busy lives."

Another similarity might be a tax-free incentive—receiving something for which they are not paying a tax. "When I talk to employers," Wendover said, "one of the things I look at is, what are you giving a person? Taxes can be a touchy subject, but there are ways to get around those things and if I am going to give you something that is a non-taxable benefit, that is to that person's advantage."

Other similarities that cross generations originate by location. Take the hunting season. In some parts of the country giving employees the first day of hunting season off can be a tremendously welcome incentive reward.

"Everybody likes to travel," Toomey added. "Older people travel. Younger people travel. They want to do different things when they travel, of course."

Technology is another example. Everybody thinks baby boomers aren't going to like the new technology, but we all have cell phones and iPods. Technology has become a way of life. And while it's true that older people might not want a Game Boy, they might want an iPhone or a Smart Phone. If you offer them a choice, you may not have to be that diverse. You'll find that a lot of things cross generations.

The point is that you can't settle on one thing, Toomey said. "You can't say let's do sports equipment and sports equipment only as the incentive," he explained. "You'll have young people and older people who play golf and tennis, but then you'll have younger people who are gamers, more interested in video games. Some people might be artsy and be into things like going to museums. You have to be careful that you don't just give employees one thing with no other option because you will alienate people."

By putting together a program based on employee feedback, Toomey contends, "you are going to have a much better program because it is going to be designed by employees for what is going to motivate them. Conducting a focus group costs nothing to do and it certainly will be way more effective than guessing; especially if you guess wrong."

Toomey also believes that one of the things overlooked by corporations is peer recognition, something important to all individuals.

"Everybody responds to peer recognition," he said. "I don't care what your age group is, or what your likes and dislikes are. Being recognized in front of your peers is a reward. If it's a guy who is a gamer, who wins a video game, they like their friends to know they won. If it is a guy who is a jock, they like everyone there to know they've done well in sporting events. Somebody who comes up with something that saves the company money or increases sales, they love being recognized for it. That doesn't go away."

Marcia Rhodes, a spokesperson for WorldatWork, a nonprofit professional association dedicated to knowledge leadership in total rewards, compensation, benefits and work-life, somewhat agrees with Toomey.

"The first thing incentive program planners should do to ensure they are motivating all of the generations in their workforce is to abandon the 'one size fits all' approach," she said.

Similar to Toomey's idea of focus groups, Rhodes said corporations should take the time to survey their employees and adjust their programs using employee feedback. A WorldatWork study, "Rewarding a Multigenerational Workforce" (September 2008) found that there is, at best, an awareness of differing generational needs by HR professionals.

"There does not appear, however, to be a concerted effort to proactively go beyond this recognition," Rhodes noted. "The survey reveals that 56 percent of organizations do not consider generational differences when designing total rewards programs."

As you design your incentive programs, remember that rewards are in the eye of the beholder. In order for an employee to view something as a reward, it has to be valued by the individual. Otherwise, it can backfire.

Turn-ons & Turn-offs

No matter what generation an employee is from, not keeping them engaged is a huge turnoff.

"Businesses today are all about numbers," Toomey said. "With this economy all you hear is news about layoffs. People don't feel they have any worth to the company, that they are just a number. They don't feel valued for what they may have contributed to the bottom line. Many employees feel if they're making too much money or have reached a certain age, they are just going to be gotten rid of."

"Just the way traditionalists are referenced can be a turnoff to them," Wendover explained. "They want to be appreciated for their experience and their wisdom. And for the contributions they've made to the organization because they typically come to an organization and stay for a long time, so they want to be recognized for that."

Boomers are also turned off by dismissal of their contributions. They are social, so they are turned off by a workplace that is so focused on work, so transactional that there is no opportunity to get to know each other, no sense of community.

For X'ers time is a very valuable thing. They are the ones who prefer to come in, get work done efficiently and then leave. "Don't make me go to a meeting if I don't have to. I want to go home at 4 to see my kids," Wendover explained. "An X'er might say, 'If you want to go home at 6 because you're been shooting the bull during the day, knock yourself out, but that is not me. Don't force it on me.'"

The leading edge of the millennials is just moving into the workplace. There are a lot more of them to come. Communication and entertainment on an electronic platform is what interests them. They are turned off by meetings where they are not stimulated. Millennials have no patience for meetings that they feel are wasting their time. (Then again, who does?)

Toomey believes motivation is more important than ever in the current state of the economy because everybody is working scared and nobody knows who is next to go. For that matter, people are now wondering if their company is going to survive these economic times, if their job is going to be downsized or gotten rid of altogether.

"Now is when a company needs to motivate employees more than ever," he explained. "When people are worried about their job they are not going to work as well as if they were happy in their job and they feel like they are part of the team that is working to turn things around. If you don't feel engaged, if you are sitting there working scared, you are not going to be as productive."

Impending Boom-of Retirements

In light of the coming boomer exodus the approach to incentives and motivations must evolve. Consider for a moment some Census statistics. As of 2005, the estimated number of baby boomers is 88.2 million (and Millennials are almost equal in number). It is now estimated that as of 2008, 10,000 baby boomers a day become eligible for retirement. Not all will retire, of course. But think of how corporate mindsets will be changing.

"The knowledge drain will be significant," Kearney writes, "and the loss will go beyond factual knowledge because this group brings to corporations hidden knowledge, corporate dedication, experience and stability—all of which successful teams need. It is up to the project managers to develop a process that ensures that this loss is handled effectively by using and motivating cross-generational teams."

How exactly will things change? Hard to say. But consider this: Boomers have always been a social bunch, so incentives for them have been workforce or organizationally centric. They have holiday parties and company picnics, which younger people don't necessarily find attractive. Younger employees tend to maintain a social circle outside of the organization. And play is something they do somewhere else. Boomers were more likely to socialize with their co-workers.

"I refer to the new generation as the instant generation," Toomey said. "Nothing is ever fast enough for Gen X'ers. Keeping them current, keeping their attention is tough enough. They don't interact with each other like the boomers did because of the technology. Before, you had to get up and talk to somebody, or get on the phone and talk with somebody. Now there is e-mail, texting, instant messaging, twittering."

Gen X'ers and millennials are very smart and tech-savvy, but they are very impatient and they need to see results and movement at their job very quickly or they're gone. They're known as job hoppers.

Boomers typically have one job and stay there until they retire.

The problem with these instant generations is that production of merchandise is not as fast as getting the information out there. So somehow there is going to be a disconnect when things can't happen as fast as people want them to happen.

In the past, Rhodes said, "we've resorted to treating everyone the same in our fast-paced, discrimination-sensitive environments. Personalized recognition is uncommon, but it will be essential in the future. Many times, a simple, sincere 'thank you' can work wonders. When something more elaborate is appropriate, creatively tailoring your recognition says you went the extra mile. Rather than a cash reward, consider a more personal reward such as a gift certificate for a popular steakhouse for the steak lover, hard-to-get tickets to a game for the baseball fanatic or cooking classes for the weekend pastry chef."

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