September 24, 2019

New Research Highlights Generational Divides — and Overlaps — in Attracting, Retaining, and Engaging Employees 


A decade ago, unemployment spiked to 10 percent, its highest level since 1983. Today, it’s below 4 percent. This is by and large great news, but it does mean employers need to work harder to attract and retain talent.

However, the tight labor market is just one challenge facing business leaders, HR professionals, and recruiters. These individuals must also contend with the fact that today’s workforce comprises various generations with unique experiences and motivators.

As millennials and Gen. Z-ers become the largest portion of the workforce within the next decade, engaging these generations should become a top priority for businesses. At the same time, employers will need to retain their most experienced employees, who continue to play a “critical but often underappreciated role in the workforce,” in the words of DDI’s Stephanie Neal.

Reflektive recently surveyed more than 1,000 full-time US professionals, and the findings show that the critical factors in attracting, retaining, and engaging talent vary by generation. However, the research also revealed that some things cut across age groups. In particular, feeling valued and receiving recognition and feedback are important to people of all generations.

Different Generations Want Different Things From Employers

It probably comes as no surprise that generations differ in what they want from their employers. For example, our research shows that growth potential is the most important overall factor to those in the 18-34 age group. That adds up, as people early in their careers want the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder, and they have farther to go than their more experienced counterparts. Plus, as Neal also noted, millennials had a sluggish start to their careers during the financial crisis. Many are now looking to make up for lost time and money.

However, 60 percent of respondents in the 35-54 age group are more interested in benefits, and they’re keen on a good vacation package. The 55-74 age group noted the importance of benefits, but 64 percent of this generation said compensation is their top consideration. The 75+ group values meaningful work, compensation, and benefits/vacation packages, which they voted for in equal measure.

When it comes to what makes employees happiest at work, the 18-34 age group was most likely to say annual pay increases and feeling valued. Meanwhile, annual pay increases tend to bring the most joy to the 35-54 age group.

Everybody Likes to Feel Valued and Get Along With Their Supervisors

Money may get an employee in the door, but it won’t necessarily keep them there. Feeling valued is of paramount importance for people across generations.

A whopping 77 percent of the 55-74 age group said feeling valued is the most important contributor to their workplace happiness. Having a good relationship with their boss was also a leading driver of happiness. Feeling valued and having good relationships with supervisors were also among the top three choices of the 35-54 age group, trailing annual pay increases only slightly.

The 18-34 age group also expressed the importance of feeling valued — tied with annual pay increases — as the No. 1 thing that makes them happiest at work. Nearly as many said a good relationship with their boss contributes most to their work happiness. The youngest cohort also noted the importance of great culture and career advancement, but the importance of those factors drops as you move up to the next generations.

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Everyone Seeks Good Relationships With Coworkers and Positive Recognition

Good coworker relationships and positive recognition also rank highly in general, but precisely where they rank varies by generation.

Positive recognition is the top factor driving engagement at work for the 18-34 and 55-74 age groups, with 52 percent and 59 percent of these groups respectively selecting it as their No. 1 choice. Good relationships with coworkers came in second for these generations, but they rank first among the 35-54 age group. An overwhelming 75 percent of the 75+ set expressed the importance of good relationships with coworkers.

All three generations noted bad workplace culture, no career growth, and not retaining great talent as prevalent problems in the workplace. The 35-54 and 55-74 age groups said they would be least able to tolerate work environments with too much gossip. The 18-34 age group indicated working in a “mean girls” atmosphere would be a nonstarter for them.

It’s also noteworthy that 100 percent of those 75 and older said great people management is the most important contribution to a company’s success. What we can deduce from this insight is those who have the most experience in the workplace understand the importance of good people management because they themselves have witnessed the benefits of it.

Workers Across Generations Welcome Helpful Feedback, and Many Want More of It

Performance reviews are a key component of good people management. Our research shows that employees across generations overwhelmingly welcome the guidance, interface time with managers, and potential for raises that come with performance reviews.

While traditional company practice has been to do reviews on an annual basis, research indicates nearly a third of people ages 55-74 would like those conversations to happen at least every month. Almost a third of workers ages 35-54 would prefer to get formal feedback every week, and nearly a third of people in the 18-34 age range want constant feedback, saying it would be ideal if they could get it on a daily basis.

Broadly speaking, the factors that influence attracting, retaining, and engaging talent vary by generation. That said, feeling valued, receiving recognition, and frequent feedback are important to all generations. Regular performance reviews keep lines of communication clear and fair, they help workers understand what they’re doing right and where they need improvement, and they give supervisors the opportunity to recognize employee successes. Workers also get the chance to receive positive feedback on a regular basis, which prompts more good performances in the future. When people and organizations work together for the best possible results, everyone reaches their full potential.

Rachel Ernst is vice president of employee success at Reflektive.

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Rachel Ernst is the vice president of employee success at Reflektive, where she oversees the end-to-end HR function, consults on best practices with prospects and customers, and builds product content. Her career in HR spans compensation, learning and development, leadership coaching, people analytics, and organizational design. She strives to evolve the performance management ecosystem to fulfill its ultimate goal: creating a work environment where people are enabled to be their most productive and authentic selves. Her favorite piece of advice is "go where the energy goes," which helps her focus her time and energy on the highest-impact people initiatives.