A Guide for the Ages: What You Need to Know to Attract a Multigenerational Workforce

February 12, 2020

The recent arrival of Gen Z in the workplace has triggered a flood of generational comparisons, some thought-provoking and most merely whimsical. The media seems endlessly fascinated by the different historical, economic, and cultural influences that have shaped Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers. 

They have scrutinized each generation’s favorite slang (groovy for Boomers and FOMO and meh for Millennials) as well as the average price of a home sold in the United States ($72,400 in January of 1980 and $200,300 in January of 2000).

In LinkedIn’s just-released Global Talent Trends 2020 report, the multigenerational workforce is identified as one of the four main currents that will shape talent acquisition in the coming years. And 89% of the talent professionals surveyed by LinkedIn told us that a truly multigenerational workforce makes a company more successful.

But many companies are finding it hard to attract and retain talent from all generations with equal success. Tech firms and hospitality businesses in the United States, for example, tend to have younger teams while energy and manufacturing companies typically have older workforces.

Global Talent Trends defined Baby Boomers as workers born from 1946 to 1964; Gen Xers, from 1965 to 1980; Millennials, from 1981 to 1996; and Gen Zers, from 1997 to 2012 (though we’re not seeing a lot of workers yet born in 2012).

No matter how you’re defining the generations, their differences tend to be overstated and their similarities underplayed. Nonetheless, understanding where and how they do vary can help you build a team that successfully leverages the skill sets, perspectives, and experiences of workers across the age spectrum.

Here’s a guide to understanding how the generations, when taken in aggregate, vary from one another:

1. They have strengths in different skill sets

When looked at as a whole, each generation has certain strengths that stand apart. LinkedIn data shows that Gen Z, the first generation of digital natives, is particularly strong in emerging tech skills and has a larger share of people, say, with Python programming chops than its generational counterparts. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, on the other hand, have a higher concentration of people with business and real estate expertise.

  • Screenshot from Global Talent Trends 2020 Report:  Title:Skills through the ages Subtitle: The skills each generation has in the highest proportion compared to other generations, per LinkedIn data.  Generation Z: 1. Python 2. Cascading Style Sheets 3. Adobe Premiere Pro  Generation X: 1. Sales management 2. New business development 3. Program management  Millennials: 1. Adobe Photoshop 2. Data analysis 3. AutoCad  Baby Boomers: 1. Nursing 2. Residential homes 3. Investment properties

There are, of course, individuals in each generational cohort who have the skills and knowledge you may be looking for. Your candidates may or may not fit into their generation’s mold.

These differing strengths offer companies a huge opportunity. “What if you believed in your heart that every single person, at any age, had something to teach you?” asks Chip Conley, founder of the Modern Elder Academy and a strategic advisor to the leadership at Airbnb. “And what if it was partly your job to discover what it is that they are supposed to teach you?”

Forward-looking companies have cultivated the possibilities of cross-generational teams with their different skills and perspectives by creating reciprocal mentorship programs, in which younger employees and their more experienced colleagues share their specialized knowledge with one another. For example, SAP designed a Mature Talent program to boost cooperation in multigenerational teams by having coworkers of different ages teach each other. This allows SAP to raise the performance of everyone in the program — and to quell potential intergenerational conflicts. 

And if you want to tap into the wisdom of all the generations in your workforce, consider first tapping into the LinkedIn Learning course “Mentoring and Reverse Mentoring Programs at Work.”

2. They have different job priorities

When it comes to what they value at work, the generations actually share more similarities than differences. They all love good compensation and benefits, work-life balance, and inspirational colleagues.

  • Screenshot of bar graphs from the Global Talent Trends 2020 report:  Title: What generations prioritize in a job Subtitle: Percentage of people who selected the following as a top factor when considering a new job:  Inspirational colleagues & culture: Generation Z: 42% Millennial: 41% Generation X: 43% Baby Boomers: 45%  Company with a purposeful mission: Generation Z: 18% Millennial: 23% Generation X: 23% Baby Boomers: 32%  Investment in employee training: Generation Z: 36% Millennial: 25% Generation X: 20% Baby Boomers: 21%

There are, however, some important and measurable differences in what each generation hopes to find in the workplace. Gen Z, for example, values training more than other cohorts, with 36% of Gen Z saying it’s a top factor when they’re considering a new job as opposed to only 20% of Gen X. 

Nearly half of Gen Z is looking for a training program that allows them to pick up knowledge and skills independently, with a learning program they get to shape themselves. Some 62% of Gen Zers say that they want to learn to get better at their jobs, which is even higher than the number who say they want to learn for a raise (59%) or a promotion (46%). And training can be a win for everyone — LinkedIn data shows that companies that are rated highly on employee training see 53% lower attrition than those that aren’t.

While each generation values, to some degree, finding a company with a purposeful mission, Baby Boomers are the most likely to identify this as a key driver. Your company should create inspirational vision and mission statements that will not only help you attract and retain talent but will help shape your most critical decision-making.

Companies rated highly for having a purposeful mission have 49% lower attrition than companies rated poorly on this dimension, according to LinkedIn data. Dean Carter, the CHRO for Patagonia, suggests that companies have at least one “jaw-dropping, ridiculous” way to support their values — his company has three different onsite childcare centers.

3. They have different reasons for leaving

A 2019 report from Gallup estimated — conservatively, it contended — that U.S. businesses are losing $1 trillion every year due to voluntary employee turnover. So, curbing attrition is high on the to-do lists of many companies. Understanding why different generations tend to leave their jobs may be the critical first step in stemming departures.

  • Screenshot from Global Talent Trends 2020 Report:  Title: Why employees leave jobs Subtitle: The top three reasons why employees left their job, by generation, according to LinkedIn survey. Gen Z not included due to limited sample size.  Millennials: 1. Better compensations and benefits 2. More advancement 3. More challenge  Generation X: 1. More challenge 2. Better compensations and benefits 3. More advancement  Baby Boomers: 1. More challenge 2. Better fit for skills and interests 3. More impact

Millennials, for example, are frequently scrambling to pay mortgages and, even more often, college loan debts. Some 70% of recent U.S. college graduates are burdened by loan debt — collectively, the United States has $1.6 trillion (that’s right — trillion) in student loan debt. So, smart companies such as IBM, Peloton, Western Union, and First Republic Bank are helping employees pay off those debts — and keeping them from fleeing to other jobs.

Boomers and Gen Xers, on the other hand, both want more challenge in their work. Companies can keep their more experienced workers motivated and engaged by making sure they have regular opportunities to take on new roles. 

LinkedIn research shows that employees who change positions internally — whether by a promotion or by a lateral move into a new function — are much more likely to stick around than those who stay in the same role. This lines up with Glint data that points to the significance of career as a top driver of engagement across cultures and countries. (Career, in this context, means an employee’s belief that they have a chance to grow professionally and that their career goals can be satisfied with their current company.)

Gen Xers and Boomers, on average, stay at their jobs nearly twice as long as Millennials, so pay particular attention to the things — compensation, advancement, and challenge — that Millennials typically leave jobs for.

4. There are different benefits that make them perk up

Each of the three older generations has named healthcare coverage as the No. 1 benefit they’re looking for, according to a study of U.S. workers done by the Employee Benefits Research Institute. But it is most important for Boomers, who also value retirement plans (doh) and flexible scheduling, often so they can tend to ailing parents or partners. Gen Xers, who may feel uncertainty about whether Social Security will be there for their retirement years, are looking for a 401(k) with matching contributions from the company.

Broadly speaking, Millennials are less interested and less informed about their employee benefits than Boomers and Gen Xers. They are also less likely to report that their benefits and perks play a key role in their decision to accept or reject a job offer.

Jennifer Benz, founder of Segal Benz Communications in San Francisco, said: “The key to reaching Millennials is twofold: Make the benefits relevant and meaningful to them and communicate frequently.”

As Benz pointed out, companies often focus all of their benefits communication on the once-a-year enrollment period. Try shorter and more frequent messages delivered by video, blogs, IMs, and corporate broadcasts to make sure you reach everyone effectively.

Companies that can afford robust healthcare, work-flexibility options, and paid leave will do well — these are winners for every age group. Beyond that? Research by the insurance company Unum found that a third of all employees cited student debt repayment as a must-have benefit (see Section 2 on job priorities). That jumps to 55% for Millennials, who are saddled with hundreds of billion dollars in student loan debt. It’s also a home run with Gen Zers, many of whom are still in college. 

To further connect with Millennials, consider adding supplemental benefits such as critical illness insurance, financial wellness planning, and pet insurance — a study published by the Employee Benefits Research Institute found that while only 8% of Baby Boomers took advantage of company-offered pet insurance, some 41% of Millennials did. The good news for your company is that these benefits are paid for by employees but will still increase the organization’s “stickiness” with Millennials.

Final thoughts: The goal is to build a diverse team that includes a broad range of experience and perspectives

While getting a handle on the skill sets, job priorities, attrition triggers, and sticky benefits of each generation can be help you build an age-diverse workforce, it’s critical that recruiters and hiring managers also remember to treat each job candidate as a unique individual who may or may not reflect their generation’s patterns and predilections.

“Organizations that take the time to break through stereotypes and myths,” says Jason Dorsey, an author and generational expert, “can create tremendous trust, teamwork, communication, and openness that unlocks the potential of every generation.”

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