Employee Engagement: It's Not About Millennials vs Boomers

An employee’s age doesn’t affect their engagement with your company as much as how long they’ve been on the job does.

Employee Engagement: It's Not About Millennials vs Boomers

It’s commonly accepted these days that different generations of workers — whether they’re millennials, baby boomers or Gen Xers — require different approaches to keep them engaged in the workplace.

But research suggests that age may not be the most important factor to use in determining how to best manage and engage employees. Instead, organizations should also take their strategic cues from the length of the employees’ tenure, not just how many trips they’ve made around the sun.

“It’s not all about generations,” says Dan Reilly, the vice president of SMS Research Advisors, a research and consulting firm based in Minneapolis. “The idea that millennials are engaging one way versus Gen Xers engaging another way — that literally tells you only half the story.

“By looking at engagement just by age, not stage (of tenure), you’re missing a good portion of the reasons for engagement or disengagement. You’re fixing a problem with the wrong tools because you’re looking at it through a different lens. You miss the context of how years of service impact employees’ thinking.”

Reilly’s assertions stem from an SMS Research Advisors study that explored how tenure at companies affects employees’ motivations, career outlooks and other engagement-related factors.

“We feel that engagement has several facets, and one that hasn’t been studied is how heavily people’s job experience weighs on their job satisfaction,” he says.

The study surveyed 1,500 employees of various ages and in different stages of their careers. Roughly 40 percent of employees polled say they’re completely disengaged at work, regardless of their age. But perhaps more surprising was the study’s finding that on-the-job tenure matters more than age when it comes to determining what keeps employees engaged. In other words, the things that drive engagement for a 40-year-old who’s new on the job likely are very similar to the needs of a 22-year-old who’s also a new employee.

Four Stages of Tenure

The study divided respondents into four different groups: newbies (who have three years or less on a job), sophomores (four to seven years of experience), tenured (eight to 10 years), and sages (11 or more years). It’s difficult to succinctly summarize the study’s findings because it contains a dizzying array of data about employees’ on-the-job attitudes and motivational factors, as well as data about things employees feel would make them more engaged, compared to what they’re actually getting from their employers.

But in a nutshell, here are some of the findings, starting with newbies. To keep newbies engaged, the greatest challenge is making sure they feel connected to a larger purpose. Because they lack experience in their new environment, they rely more than the other tenure-based cohorts on emotional and social clues to bridge their experience gap.

“It’s not about insecurity, but rather the need to know the lay of the land,” Reilly says.

To keep newbies engaged, it’s critical for managers to show them the career possibilities that exist. This can be accomplished short-term through onboarding procedures and long-term by providing them with regular feedback.

“It’s all about helping them make connections,” Reilly says. “Newbies feel a sense of isolation, which is why they rely on social and emotional cues. You need to assign them to teams that are collaborative, which is their preferred style.”

But newbies aren’t automatically millennials, Reilly cautions. Only about half of the newbies polled for the survey were actually millennials. The average age of newbies polled was 34.

According to the study, there’s a distinct disconnect between the things that engage newbies the most — reward, tuition-reimbursement, student-loan assistance, health-and-wellness and mentoring programs — and what their employers actually provide.


The Moment of Truth

After three years on a job, sophomores (the average age of those polled was 38) can clearly see whether or not the company is interested in investing further in their careers.

“They face what we call the moment of truth: Am I getting enough value from this position to make the investment in the company?” Reilly says. “This is where supervisors become really important. If they respect how employees have mastered a position, they should challenge them with new opportunities to grow their skill sets.”

What if there’s a lack of opportunities for advancement? Then don’t expect engagement, Reilly says.

“At this stage, it’s not necessarily about a trophy, like an employee-of-the-year award,” he says. “An award is not the same as a reward.”

While sophomores who see limited opportunities may feel less engaged with their organization, they still feel strongly about their immediate team at this stage in their tenure. So, the team focus becomes much more important to them. The key engagement factor here: Help them to keep envisioning a future for themselves at the company, Reilly says.


Reality Sets In

For the cohort of tenured employees (average age of those polled was 42), an even stronger dose of reality has now set in. At this stage, managers need to make sure employees understand the career path that’s before them. Candor is critical here; employees will see through false promises about supposed advancement opportunities that really don’t exist.

“This is where we really start to see employees begin to focus more on the job they’re doing and the job their team is doing,” Reilly says. “They get that promotions may not be in the cards, but they still really like working with their team and retirement is looking attractive. Getting financial remuneration and building a nest egg for the next stage of their lives becomes more important.”

To keep tenured employees engaged, organizations should help them understand that their contributions to their team are still vitally important. The key engagement factor here: Understand how employees perceive their own career success and act accordingly.

For sages (the average age of those polled was 50), the main work focus shifts to legacies — the kind of impression they’ll leave on an organization after they retire.

“They realize their time with the company is shorter, rather than longer,” Reilly says. “They want to be sure the legacy they leave is preserved.” 

Engagement can still be a problem for sages. The key to keeping them engaged is giving them opportunities to build their legacies.

“Disengagement here stems from an inability to recognize they have a legacy to which they can contribute,” Reilly says. “Managers need to help them identify that, help them understand that they can build on a piece of the company’s future and contribute long-term.”

So what’s the upshot for companies? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for keeping employees engaged. It requires a customized approach that looks beyond just age as a key driver. In fact, even if employees are similar in age but in different career stages, they will likely have entirely different preferences and motivations, Reilly says. The first step is understanding your own organization’s level of engagement, then understanding the motivations and behaviors that contribute to that engagement — or lack thereof.

“Once you have that info — the what, the how and the why — then you can create strategies and develop tactics that can improve engagement by allowing employees to contribute in positive ways to their team and to their company,” Reilly says.


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