How Employee Motivation Differs Between Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials & Gen Zers

Perhaps you’re a manager who’s eager to understand exactly what gets your team members ready to tackle their work on a Monday morning. Maybe you’re an individual contributor who wants a better grasp on what you value in your own work environment — or how you can better collaborate with someone else on your team.

Regardless of your specific circumstances, this is true: all of us bring unique differences and preferences to the workplace. And understanding the root of those differences can be powerful.

Sure, the values we bring to work are influenced by our backgrounds, goals, positions, and so much more. But another major player here? Our ages.

That’s right. Many experts assert that the outlook we have on our work — especially when it comes to employee motivation — can be generational.

That presents a challenge in terms of compatibility and understanding, especially when you consider that today’s office can have as many as five generations under one roof. In this post, we’re breaking down some motivation differences between four of the most prevalent generations at work: the Baby Boom generation, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z.

But first, let’s talk about stereotypes…

There’s no shortage of employee motivation theories out there, and it’s easy to think that they’re cut and dried rules. If you’re part of this generation, you must perfectly fit this exact mold, right?

But we all know that’s not the case in reality. While all of the below information is pulled from research, keep in mind that these are still generalizations. This is a summary based on statistics, surveys, and expert opinions – not necessarily a detailed prescription for what every single person in this generation will believe and value.

If you’re a Gen Xer who thinks, “Hey, I identify more with the millennials!” there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re painting with a broad brush here, and there’s bound to be individual variations within each generation.

Before you can pinpoint which generational characteristics resonate with you (and which don’t!), you first need to know where on the spectrum you fall. Below is the age criteria for each of the four generations we’ll be discussing here:

  • Baby boomers: born between 1946 and 1964
  • Generation X: born between 1965 and 1980
  • Generation Y (Millennials): born between 1981 and 1996
  • Generation Z: born between 1997 and 2012

Be aware that the cutoffs for generations aren’t an exact science, and the years can vary a bit based on which research and estimation you’re looking at. However, these time spans should give you a pretty good idea of where you land when reading the below employee motivation examples. 

What motivates baby boomers?

Employee motivation in a word: flexibility 

When it comes to what motivates employees, millennials are often pointed to as the generation driving the demand for flexibility. But you might be surprised to learn that it’s actually the baby boomers who yearn for even more wiggle room in this regard.

In one survey from Harvard Business Review, 87% of boomers stated that they consider work flexibility to be important. That’s because they’ve built lives outside of the office. That same survey found that 71% of boomer respondents were juggling the needs of different family generations, and 55% of them volunteer their time to support environmental, cultural, educational, and other causes. 

That’s forcing employers to not only figure out ways to motivate employees in the boomer generation but also how to keep them around longer.

A study from LIMRA Secure Retirement Institute found 92% of employers were taking steps to help their employees work longer. Flexibility was a key part of those retention strategies, with two-thirds of the surveyed firms implementing flexible work hours. 

What motivates Generation X?

Employee motivation in a word: autonomy

Many people in this generation grew up as latch-key kids. Both of their parents were in the workforce, which means that they took care of themselves during the after-school hours. As a result, they’re accustomed to a certain amount of independence.

They’re resourceful, self-directed, and hard-working. And when it comes to boosting their employee engagement, it’s important to avoid micromanagement at all costs — that high level of supervision makes them feel as if they aren’t trusted to do their jobs well.

“Gen Xers require autonomy and freedom in the way they do their jobs,” explains a conference paper from the Project Management Institute. “They expect latitude and the ability to experiment with improving their assignments. Micromanagement is a major turn-off.”

Of course, they recognize that they need some direction to get their jobs done. However, they thrive and feel most motivated when they’re given the freedom and trust to run with those directions and accomplish their tasks in the way they see fit. 

What motivates Millennials?

Employee motivation in a word: development

Often thought of as entitled and lazy, what Millennials really want at work seems to go against every stereotype. 

More than any other generation, Millennials seek out opportunities for growth and development. In fact, offering career training and development would reportedly keep 86% of Millennials from leaving their current positions — proof that a development plan belongs on your list of employee motivation ideas.

Millennials don’t just want to know that there’s room for advancement within their organizations, but that their company will also support them in actively pursuing that growth.

According to the Gallup Report "How Millennials Want to Work and Live", 59% of Millennials say that opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them when applying for a job. Only 44% of Gen Xers and 41% of baby boomers say the same.

That same report discovered that an impressive 87% of Millennials rate "professional or career growth and development opportunities" as important to them in a job, which is far more than the 69% of non-Millennials who say the same.

What motivates Generation Z?

Employee motivation in a word: purpose

You’ve probably heard some of the inspirational quotes and sentiments about the importance of fulfillment in your work. Make no mistake, Gen Zers place a lot of weight on that concept.

Members of this generation recognize that their careers make up a huge portion of their lives, and they feel entitled to actually enjoy what they spend 40+ hours each week doing. One study of 235 business students found that 64.7% of respondents rated “enjoys work” as their most motivating factor at work — even above things like rewards and career advancement.

So what’s the secret to helping this generation find pleasure in what they do? Demonstrating that they serve a greater purpose is a great place to start.

Gen Zers don’t want to clock in and out in the interest of a paycheck. They want to know that they’re really making a difference. In a large study of over 2,000 respondents, researchers stated that “…for the first time, we see a generation prioritizing purpose in their work.”

Additionally, research from Dell found that 38% of Gen Zers want to work for a socially or environmentally responsible organization, and 45% want work that has meaning and purpose beyond getting paid.

Employee motivation isn’t one size fits all

It’s hard to overstate the importance of employee motivation. But knowing just how to motivate your employees as a manager or how to successfully collaborate with different working styles as an individual contributor can be a challenge, especially with such distinct generational differences.

To recap, here’s a skimmable list of what typically (again, these are generalizations!) motivates each group:

  • Employee motivation for baby boomers: flexibility
  • Employee motivation for Generation X: autonomy
  • Employee motivation for Millennials: development
  • Employee motivation for Generation Z: purpose

The differences are clear, but the good news is that we have way more in common than we think. Most of us can agree on wanting a positive work environment, a supportive team, and recognition for good work. 

The even better news is that the above motivators aren’t really all that divisive. Ultimately, we can all benefit from more flexibility, autonomy, development, and purpose in our careers. It’s proof that we really are better off when we’re together. 

Have to institute a change within your own organization? Get our free ebook that identifies the seven most common personality types you’ll encounter when making a change (and how to guide them through it!).

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