Popular media tells us that today’s workplace, with four generations – soon to be five – working side by side, stands divided by generational differences. To help us decide once and for all if there is any truth to these claims, Karine Lienhard, Vice President Marketing at Sodexo Benefits & Rewards Services, gave us an inside look at a recent Sodexo study and longtime generational expert and Director of Wharton School’s center for human resources, Peter Cappelli, chimed in as well.
Where is the common ground?
We hear it often: Millennials are spoiled and entitled; Gen Xers are skeptical and negative; Baby boomers live for their jobs; Technology is lost on Traditionalists. While it can be easy to accept these sweeping generalizations, when we take a closer look, we find that generations have a lot in common – especially in terms of their quality of life expectations in the workplace.
In fact, Sodexo Benefits and Rewards Services conducted a study1 across five countries comparing Millennials and non-Millennials in the workplace and found that the top six expectations of each group (security and protection for my future, health and family; manage own time/work life balance; monetary recognition for personal contribution; career development; regular and ongoing feedback; personal development inside as well as outside of the workplace) were exactly the same.
“It’s actually pretty incredible,” says Lienhard. “When we set out to conduct this study, we thought there would be quite marked differences between needs and expectations of employees from different countries and generations. In the end, we found that to be untrue. There were also very strong similarities from country to country. The needs of a worker in India were not so different from those in Poland or the US. ”
Researchers at the University of North Carolina came to the same conclusion2 when their study revealed that Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers all seek work-life integration, the chance to work on challenging projects, the opportunity to advance professionally, fair treatment and competitive compensation. Similarly, a 2015 IBM Institute for Business Value survey also showed very little difference between generations – claiming that generations share the same motivational factors as well as opinions of the workplace3 .
Breaking through the stereotypes
According to generational experts, the nuances that we do see in the workplace have more to do with individual expectations rather than overall generational expectations. Furthermore, these differences tend to align more with one’s stage in life rather than one’s year of birth4.
“A generational difference implies something about the members of a cohort that persists over their life. But there is a lot of evidence that workplace differences are not generational,” explains Cappelli. In other words, this notion of stage, and not age, is quite important when companies reflect on what motivates individual employees in the workplace. “When workers are beginning their careers, they want different things, especially opportunities to learn and advance. In the middle of their careers, because of family needs typically, they need money and stability; by the end of their careers, they are looking for different things yet again, often personal enrichment,” he says.
One aspect of today’s working world that seems to unite everyone – across generations and cultures – is the need for more balance between work and life. It was also a common theme in the Sodexo study – and for good reason: it is important to everyone.
“There is a blurring effect that is breaking down the boundary between work and free time, largely due to the fact that we are always connected,” says Lienhard. “So to compensate for this ultra-connectivity, employees are now seeking out ways to manage their time and find more balance. And companies need to take this into account when designing their recognition and rewards strategies.”
Personalization rules over standardization
In order for companies to be truly successful in the multigenerational workforce, they must go beyond the stereotypes and get to know their employees, understand their quality of life expectations and discover what motivates them. From there, organizations can create tailored offers instead of blanket policies.
“A key takeaway from our survey is that employees want to be looked at as a whole person – with personal interests and hobbies – not just someone who clocks in from 9 to 5,” says Lienhard.
Sodexo has found a way to address this individuality through its large scope of employees benefits. The rewards program is based on employees’ interests, challenges and priorities and allows employees to choose rewards – whether it’s culture programs, or health and well-being programs. This flexibility and opportunity in the workplace doesn’t just meet the needs of multiple generations, but it gives all employees the freedom to grow and develop.
The generational diversity that is so abundant in today’s workplace requires companies to invest in a bit of legwork to ensure that they understand what matters most to employees. “Knowing where employees are in their careers and lives, and their related needs,” says Lienhard, “can help to create a happy – and well rewarded – multigenerational workforce.”
Cappelli adds, “The biggest point about this entire topic, about which there is no dispute, is that even if there were average differences between age groups in their values, they are irrelevant for employers. Why? Because average effects mask enormous variation within any age group. Want something to actually worry about? Try the fact that we are obsessing about non-existent differences in the interests between young people while ignoring the interests of the huge and growing older workforce5.”
1 The Sodexo study interviewed more than 4,000 individuals across the US, India, Brazil, France and Poland in 2016.