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How to recruit and retain employees from different generations

What appeals to Baby Boomers may not work for Gen Xers and Millennials

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dave Sanford
March 12, 2008

Salary, benefits, and compensation are not the only keys to recruiting and retaining talent.

Corporate hiring managers are now realizing just how heavily generational factors weigh on candidates' decisions to accept or decline a position. Factors such as loyalty, corporate ethics, culture, company performance, health insurance, flex-time, telecommuting options, location, and corporate citizenship all play a large role in how Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials make their career decisions.

At staffing firm Winter, Wyman, we have found that where people sit on the generational continuum can affect how they make their decision to take or reject a position, as well as whether to remain with their employer. After working with tens of thousands of individuals over the last 35 years during their job searches, here are some of our findings on the different generations' key criteria for job selection:

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

  • Location - The less the commute the better. Boomers have put in their long hours, and as they age they increasingly value balance. They no longer wish to work a 70-hour week, or commute an hour to and from work.
  • Loyalty and work ethic - Boomers respect employers with established policies who play by the rules. The parents of boomers were from a generation that had a strong employer/employee commitment based on trust and tenure. This upbringing has made it desirable for them to work for a company that is loyal to its employees and values hard work and years of dedication.
  • Financial security and stability - As individuals age, they become increasingly risk averse, especially with finances. The dot.com years taught many lessons, including that stock options and big payouts are promises, not guarantees. Boomers seek opportunities with short-term financial rewards and long-term financial security, including retirement, 401(k), pension, and stock plans.
  • Opportunities for post-retirement employment - A newer phenomenon is happening now in which people on the cusp of traditional retirement age either can't afford to stop working or feel like their lives will be less fulfilling without work of some sort. The dream of playing golf seven days a week doesn't resonate any more. Instead, boomers are interested in active retirement or flexible, snow-bird, or part-time arrangements. Employers should tap into this experienced and skilled talent pool with reduced hour opportunities or other flexible arrangements.
  • Ways to mentor other generations and pass the torch - At this stage of their careers, boomers seek meaning and balance. They want ways to give back and share their experiences. They have worked hard in their roles, accomplished success, and desire a way to share their knowledge with others.

Generation X (born 1965-1980)

  • Employer stability - Generation Xers were among the first children to see their parents laid off multiple times by corporations that no longer valued loyalty or were financially affected by multiple recessions. They value longstanding companies, with strong portfolios, plans for the future, and longevity.

  • Forum for questioning authority - Having been either raised by parents who grew up in the 60s or born themselves during that free-spirited time, Gen Xers have been taught that rules don't always apply. Again, they have seen their parents' loyalty go unrewarded -- blind loyalty is not in their DNA.
  • Flexible work arrangements and work-life balance - Gen Xers have worked hard since joining the workforce and are now in their prime child-rearing ages, so family is first in their lives. They are also a generation of working parents, so they seek, and often need, assistance from their employers in order to have the time or means to care for both growing children and aging parents. Because their lives are often filled with the stress of work and life, they seek opportunities for balance and ways to recharge their batteries.
  • Millennials (born 1980-2000)

    • Free agency attitude and work arrangements - For Millennials (also known as Generation Y), employer loyalty is earned on a daily basis. They are not afraid to switch jobs at the hint of greener grass - or when things don't seem to be going their way at a current job. For those who believe in karma, the free agency attitude of Millennials could be the other side of the coin to the lack of loyalty shown by companies during the merger mania of the past 20 years.
    • Socially conscious employers - For both Millennials and Gen Xers, an employer must be civically minded and socially aware. These generations grew up with exposure through the media and Internet to images and stories of social causes in the US and abroad. Volunteering has been a way of life for these two generations, and the Millennials in particular will seek out employers who provide community development opportunities and have a strong commitment to civic and environmental causes.
    • Independent contributions within a team environment - Millennials grew up in team environments - from school projects to youth sports - and seek work opportunities that are structured this way.
    • Meaningful work - The generation that has been taught that it will always succeed at whatever endeavor it tries, Millennials want to add value to their organizations from day one. They are not happy shuffling papers or paying their dues. They want to contribute immediately and need to feel that their work has meaning.
    • Cutting-edge technologies and companies - Millennials value new things and an old, staid work life is not important to them. They want to work for companies that are industry leaders, are cutting edge, and have the latest technologies and resources available to them.
    • Education - The youngest working generation wants to be someplace where they can grow professionally, personally, and academically.
    • Forums to provide input - Millennials not only want the ability to communicate up and down in a corporation - they expect it. Formal processes for communication only go so far with this generation. They believe in open door policies and that they should be able to speak freely and give their opinion to anyone in the organization at any time.
    • Flexibility in roles and schedules, casual attire, and a comfortable environment - Flexible arrangements, from work hours, to casual attire, to a comfortable environment work better for this generation than a strict, button-down culture.

    Because each job seeker is a unique individual with his or her own set of wants, desires and requirements - not to mention skills and experience - hiring managers must be careful not to fall into the trap of over-generalizing employees and potential employees based on their age or generation. However, by knowing the general values outlined above, managers are better able to look for ways to recruit and retain employees from all generations.

    Understanding what motivates an individual and how he or she navigates the workforce is key to offering them the right job and the right benefits. And it is a capable recruiter's job to do one's homework, to know one's clients and candidates, and to find the right match.

    Dave Sanford is Executive Vice President, Client Services of the Winter, Wyman Companies, a staffing firm based in Waltham, Mass.

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