There’s no shortage of commentary on the subject of managing and engaging the Millennial workforce. Typically defined as those born between 1980 and 1999, and the largest age group to emerge since the baby boom generation, they are (according to Deloitte) set to make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025. They’re defined by the media as the ‘entitled’ generation, demanding, narcissistic, difficult to manage and possessing confidence often outweighing their qualifications. So, what’s the secret to engaging them in the workplace, and how does this align with the needs of your Baby Boomers?

Before we launch into a comparison of what motivates and engages across the generational divide, it probably helps to look at how the working environment has evolved in recent decades. We live in exponential times, and the pace of change in the last 30 years has played no small part in moulding a different way of working and a different expectation of the workplace experience.

Workplace Demographics & Structures

Let’s start with the demographics and structure of the office environment. 30 years ago, organisations were built out of traditional hierarchies (bosses, supervisors and staff) which broadly speaking, tended to be linear with age and experience. Nowadays, workplace structures take on all sorts of appearances (traditional hierarchies, matrix structures, flat structures, even comprised mainly of freelancers and contractors). Add to this the fact that we are living longer and working later into life, which means that the workplace carries a far wider diversity of age and experience than in the past. Age is no longer the barrier that it was – at either end of the spectrum. Bright young things are setting up global enterprises and building empires from their studio flats, CEO positions in major corporations are well within the grasp of high flying forty year olds, and it is far from unheard of for the older worker to retrain via internship or take a step back in order to keep one foot on the gas whilst enjoying a few more rounds of golf. As such, the workplace is becoming less and less ‘traditional’ in structure or in demography. Older and younger workers are blended together far more directly than ever before. We’ve created ‘generational’ factions that simply did not exist 30 years ago (Baby Boomers, Generation X-ers, and Millennials), defined by their era of birth and characterised by particular traits and habits. Most frustratingly (for their managers), they are motivated and engaged by completely different things!

Technology; The ‘Now’ Generation

Then comes technology – the real game changer in the past 30 years. Pew Research Center hit the nail on the head when they defined Millennials as ‘digital natives in a land of digital immigrants’. Technology which comes intuitively to Millennials is more like a constant learning curve for Baby Boomers. Back in the 80’s, Baby Boomers joined a working world in which sending a facsimile was ‘state of the art’. The internet did not exist, and networked computers were sufficiently rare that office communication relied upon hard copy memos delivered to pigeonholes in orange internal mail envelopes. Research took time and effort expended in libraries, and organising meetings meant making personal contact with the relevant individuals to compare Filofaxes. Mobile phones were rare – indeed, if you owned one you were either extremely successful, incredibly important, or a bit of a poser (all three, in most cases). That’s not to suggest that Baby Boomers haven’t moved capably with the times; all the technological advancements of the last 30 years have far from passed them by (and let’s not forget their significant contribution to making all these changes happen!). But Millennials and Baby Boomers have a very different patience threshold when it comes to playing the waiting game. Millennials haven’t had to experience waiting for much; they’ve always operated in a world that possesses the means by which most things can be created, communicated and delivered at the push of a button, anywhere, anytime. If you want to find something out, you Google it within seconds. Need to communicate with a colleague? Instant message them and receive a reply immediately. You get the picture.

Job Loyalty

Recession hit the Baby Boomers in the early 80’s, but the Millennials have taken their own lessons from the experiences of their parents; chiefly that the ‘job for life’ concept simply doesn’t exist. No surprise, then, that when promotion, reward or development don’t come along as quickly as anticipated, self advancement wins out over loyalty. Technology has made career moves easier and more immediate these days. For the Baby Boom generation, the very idea of a job move used to be a Big Deal, requiring a significant amount of proactive effort. These days one can hardly avoid unsolicited approaches for new jobs – LinkedIn constantly ‘suggests’ them, head-hunters are never more than a click or a call away, and it is easier to have a tattoo removed than to delete all records of one’s cv from an job board. And, for Millennials loyalty is a very short-term thing, so, as a generation neither disposed to waiting patiently, nor brought up in a world where one has to be particularly proactive to find job opportunities, it doesn’t take much to trigger a resignation. Put simply, there just aren’t the same mental/moral barriers or the same logistical hurdles that existed 30 years ago. Millennials have the technological means, the entrepreneurial spirit, the drive and the chutzpah to go out there and take what they want when they want it. As a generation who’ve witnessed countless examples of start up success, that also includes taking considerably more risks to ‘go it alone’ and be the masters of their own destiny and fortune! All of this further adds to the management headache, as the weight of expectation has now shifted onto employers to create unbeatable employment experiences and work harder than ever to retain talent.

Working Environment & Culture

Inevitably, advancement in technology comes hand in hand with changes to where, when and how people go about their work. Baby Boomers, previously used to a standard 9-5 ‘clock in clock out’ regime, have learnt to adapt to a more flexible working environment; one which Millennials simply expect as standard. The lines between work and leisure are increasingly blurred, and for Millennials it is all about getting the job done to a particular standard. When, how and where that takes place is largely academic. If Joe from the Digital Marketing team wants to head off early on Friday for a kite surfing weekend, provided his work is on track, he just doesn’t understand the need to sit around in the office until 5.30pm – particularly not since he bust a gut last night to get everything ship shape by logging on remotely from home until 10pm. Businesses are not only able to support and embrace remote and flexible working, but also to engage much more actively with global colleagues through the use of file-sharing technology, intranets, Skype, conference calls and such like. Entire training sessions can be conducted these days with a trainer in one room, and delegates spread across international locations elsewhere, all connected by video link. The chances are extremely high that at least one person will be wearing their bedroom slippers. Of course, it doesn’t always go to plan, and anything can go wrong, from IT problems to the sudden & unplanned presence of small children in the background of your professional live interview with the BBC (if you’ve no clue what this refers to, then Google ‘Professor Robert Kelly’ – you won’t regret it!).

The modern working world has not only changed the logistical way in which we work (the ‘when and where’) but also the manner in which we work together (the ‘how’). 30 years ago, the typical office was littered with partition walls and dividing panels – staff worked in cubicles and management sat in offices. These days that’s rare. It’s all about open plan spaces, hot-desking, and creative use of space. The message is clear – the working environment encourages collaboration and socialisation, as teams and individuals work together cross functionally, share knowledge and often work on multiple projects at any one time. Organisational structures often reflect this, such that one individual may well have multiple reporting lines at any one time. The modern day worker is expected to multi task to a level that was simply not possible 30 years ago without the aid of smartphones, wi-fi and on-the-go technology. These days, responding to inbound messages regarding one project whilst conducting a meeting about another is par for the course. Thirty years ago it would have been downright rude. The Millennial generation knows no different, but for Baby Boomers, this ‘always in touch’ mentality and inability to be out of reach and sight of a mobile messaging device or social media tool has taken a conscious shift in attitude.

Motivation & Reward

Ask any ten people to write down their definition of ‘success’, and you can as good as guarantee that no two answers will be the same. Ditto, their definitions of ‘reward’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘happiness’ or any other such emotive word. That’s fundamentally what makes the job of managing people so incredibly hard. Everyone is different; shaped by different experiences, influenced in different ways, and motivated by a plethora of different drivers, each of which may vary as they reach new crossroads in their life.

So, when you take into account the world which has shaped Baby Boomers, compared to that in which Millennials have embarked on their careers, its hardly surprising that the topic of engaging an age diverse workforce gives rise to more than the occasional sigh of frustration among managers and leaders. Whilst they exist in the same corporate world today, they’ve been shaped and moulded by completely different environments, technologies, working cultures and norms. They are also, of course, at completely different stages in their lives and their careers; a fact that can’t be ignored. The net result is that they have very different philosophies towards what makes work engaging.

Millennials seek meaning, purpose and impact from their work. As an employer that means you need to focus on communicating a clear company vision, and giving everyone a context of how their role contributes to and impacts upon the wider plan. They’re also an ambitious bunch, and if they don’t feel that they are learning, developing or progressing fast enough, they will jump ship. You can’t (and shouldn’t) promote everyone just because they want and expect it. What you can do is offer a good range of development tools, from in house training to external seminars, webinars and professional development programmes. It doesn’t always have to be about climbing the ladder or attending an expensive course, either; offering Millennials the right opportunities to get involved in a range of interesting and stretching new projects will help to keep them engaged by creating opportunities for them to learn new skills, gain new experiences and work alongside a varied range of bright and creative colleagues. Possibly the trickiest waters to chart with Millennials are those surrounding communication. Micro-manage them, and they’ll be out of the door marked ‘Exit’ like a shot. The typical Millennial craves the space to work autonomously and creatively. Yet, at the same time, they expect feedback, reassurance and recognition on a fairly frequent and immediate basis. It’s no secret that work life balance is a huge motivational driver for Millennials. In addition they are a very community oriented and accepting generation. So, be mindful of how your policies support these principles. To attract and retain Millennial talent, you need to build a corporate culture that positively encourages flexibility (remote working, job sharing, flexible hours and flexible benefits), diversity & inclusion, and corporate social responsibility.

Let’s not forget the other end of the spectrum, though, because your Baby Boomers matter too, and their motivational needs are a little different. They favour in person meetings and face-to-face contact over the more causal instant message approach. They neither crave nor particularly welcome the constant flow of feedback and validation that their Millennial colleagues thrive upon. The key rewards for Baby Boomers come in very traditional guises; money, title and recognition. On the latter point, you can also tap into their desire for respect by recognising their not inconsiderable knowledge and experience. Put them into mentoring roles by pairing them with Millennial colleagues (the opportunity for two way development is huge as the one can teach the other a thing or two in either direction, provided it is handled respectfully and appropriately). When it comes to planning your benefits package, make sure you’ve not tailored it entirely to the younger end of the age spectrum. Childcare vouchers and extreme sporting experience days won’t float the average Baby Boomer boat, but some solid healthcare benefits would be worth a lot in relative financial terms. Finally, work hard to build a firm sense of job security. In the silver years of their career, Baby Boomers want to feel valued, needed and secure. And rightly so, because there is a lot of skill, knowledge and wisdom tied up in their years of experience, which is of high value to your business.

Millennials are on the rise (remember, they’ll make up 75% of the workforce within the next 8 years), whilst Baby Boomers are choosing and/or having to work later into their lives. So, one thing’s for certain – if an engaged workforce is the key to maximising your business’ potential, you’d better start figuring out what makes both ends of the generational spectrum tick. Much has been written about what motivates Millennials as compared to Baby Boomers, but one must be extremely cautious of making sweeping generalisations. There’s clear value in recognising the broad differences between the two ‘generations’, as highlighted above. But it isn’t as simple as that. People don’t fit neatly into little boxes, and in today’s diverse working world assumptions will only take your management and leadership style so far. The best way to find out what drives each individual in your team to give of their best, what fosters their loyalty, and what forges a strong connection between the person they are and the job they do is, quite simply, to ask them individually. When was the last time you did that?

If you need some help with understanding how to attract, retain and engage an age diverse workforce we’re the right people to speak to. For more information on our products and services please visit our websites (diversity and inclusion) and (employee engagement) or contact us directly.