Navigating the Generation Gap: How to Motivate Employees of All Ages

Last updated: Oct 11, 2019

One of your co-workers grew up in a world without personal computers, let alone smartphones or tablets. The other has never known a life before screens. One of your employees is a big fan of avocado toast. The other owns a house.

You are part of a multigenerational team, employees who were born many years — and many experiences — apart. Some generational differences, particularly in regard to technology, are real. And some are stereotypes. (Millennials do not lack houses because they enjoy avocado toast, despite what you may have heard.) Whether you are a CEO, a manager, or a project leader, you need to cut through stereotypes, bridge the generation gap, and effectively work with people from different decades. It’s not as daunting as it sounds: The key to navigating the generation gap is understanding how to motivate employees of all ages.

Four female coworkers who range in age work together on a project

The 5 Generations in the Workplace

There are now five generations in the workplace:

  • The Silent Generation
    • Born 1925-1945
    • Ages 74 and older
  • Baby Boomers
    • Born 1946-1964
    • Ages 55 and older
  • Generation X
    • Born 1965-1980
    • Ages 39 and older
  • Millennials
    • Born 1981-1996
    • Ages 23 and older
  • Generation Z
    • Born beginning 1997 (this generation has no defined end)
    • The oldest member was 22 when this blog was written

Navigating the Generation Gap

As with all forms of diversity, a diverse age group makes your team more effective. But it can also lead to generational differences, such as:

  • Different life experiences. A baby boomer may have worked in an office setting for decades, whereas a member of Gen Z may be starting their first job.
  • Different communication styles and technology preferences. Your 74-year-old co-worker, from the silent generation, might rather talk face-to-face, while your 19-year-old Gen Z intern may choose to send a text.
  • Different leadership styles. Baby boomers may be “more accustomed to a top-down structure where young workers spend time paying their dues before voicing their opinions,” but team-oriented millennials may want to have more input, explains the New York Times.

Whether all of these generational differences actually exist depends on the individuals in your workplace. Get to know each of your co-workers as people, not as statistics. What are their unique skills? What technology are they comfortable using? What challenges are they facing? And what drives them to succeed? To truly motivate someone, you need to understand them. That’s true regardless of what generation they hail from — and it prevents you from unintentionally stereotyping.

If you do find that generation gaps exist, you can bridge them by encouraging older and younger employees to mentor one another. For example, a millennial can share their technical knowledge, and a baby boomer can help their younger co-worker gain business intuition. Most importantly, encourage each member of your team to treat one another with respect.

How to Motivate Employees of All Ages

Regardless of our generation, “we are so much more similar than we are different,” and we are motivated by the same core factors. Let’s take a look at how you can motivate employees of all ages.

Offer a Good Financial Package

The first step to incentivizing your team is a fair wage, ideally “above market rates.” Money is a crucial motivator for members of every generation, from young millennials burdened by student loans to baby boomers who are preparing for retirement.

Lift your employees’ financial burdens, and you’ll increase their loyalty to your company. “To retain exceptional talent over the long term, employers must offer a total job package that takes care of employees over their entire career and in different stages of their life,” recommends this Gallup article. That means your financial package should include benefits such as retirement plans.

Commit to Employee Wellness

Think back to the last time you were sick. Were you able to perform at a hundred percent? Of course not. Physical and mental distress sap productivity, no matter how motivated you are to succeed. That’s why it’s critical to help your team stay healthy.

Wellness programs can improve morale: Fifty percent of “employees would like to see a greater focus on well-being at their company,” according to a survey cited in this Forbes article. As you evaluate your wellness initiatives, make sure your programs go beyond offering healthy lunch options (although that’s great, too). Your organization should be committed to employee health on a foundational level:

  • Provide insurance that includes coverage for mental health care. This will save you money long-term. According to the World Health Organization, “the estimated cost to the global economy is US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity” due to depression and anxiety.
  • Improve the physical workspace. Adjustable standing desks and ergonomic workstations can make a big difference to your employees’ health.
  • Help employees to be physically active. Offer yoga classes or simply encourage them to take a five minute walk each hour.
  • Give employees access to mental health resources, from free clinical screenings to stress-management seminars.
  • Let your team know it’s OK to take sick time, including mental health days. Be supportive of employees who may need to take extended sick leave to recover from medical emergencies.

Allow Employees the Autonomy to Work on Passion Projects

Employees are galvanized by three main factors: autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose. We’ll get into all three of these later, but let’s start with autonomy, which is about allowing employees the freedom to be self-directed.

When you offer team members the time to pursue passion projects, they become intrinsically motivated to succeed. (A good example of this is 20 percent time,  which gives employees “protected space in which to tinker.” It’s led to the creation of Gmail, among other things.) 

Six coworkers from multiple generations have a friendly discussion

Offer Opportunities for Growth (Mastery)

Now let’s dive into mastery. This key motivator is why it’s important to offer professional development opportunities, which can increase motivation and retention. For example, USF’s Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education (CTPE) offers training that can be tailored to your team’s needs and delivered on-site or on campus.

Provide a Sense of Purpose

When you clock into work each day, do you feel like you are part of something meaningful, or are you counting the minutes until 5 p.m.? The answer to that question will determine how motivated you are to get out of bed on Monday morning. The same is true of your employees.

“People who consider their work to be a calling … tend to be more satisfied than those who think of their work as ‘just’ a job,” according to this excerpt from the book How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind.

Help your employees understand why their work is important. To define your organization’s purpose, SHRM suggests you answer the following questions:

  • “Why does the organization exist?”
  • “How does the organization achieve goals differently from competitors?”
  • “What difference is the organization trying to make in people’s lives?”
  • “What are you asking your employees to strive for?”

Foster a Work-Life Balance

When your team members are burnt out, they aren’t motivated. And it’s pretty hard to inspire an employee who’s missing their child’s first piano recital. The good news is, you can improve your organization’s work-life balance through providing: 

  • Greater flexibility in hours and location, such as remote work. In one study, employees were offered the chance to work “wherever, and whenever, they chose so long as projects were completed on time and goals were met.” Not only were these employees just as productive as their counterparts, they were happier, healthier, and more likely to remain at the company. Even their children were healthier, suggesting that this workplace flexibility benefited the entire family.
  • Paid leave. This includes fostering a work culture where employees feel comfortable actually using their vacation days.
  • Extended unpaid leaves, as necessary, for big life events or emergencies.
  • Reasonable workweek expectations. This is better for the overall vitality of your team and the company as a whole.

Communicate Frequently and Effectively

Whether you’re the CEO of a multimillion-dollar organization or the leader of a group project, you need to know how to communicate effectively with your team:

  • Speak so that people want to listen. Julian Treasure, a sound consultant, suggests you achieve this by communicating with honesty, authenticity, integrity, and love (i.e., kindness and compassion). We’d add clarity to that list: Employees need to understand the project goals and how to achieve them. To do this, find out how each person in your team absorbs information, and communicate in a way that meets their learning style.
  • Understand how to use different communication technologies (from office chats to work management tools), and ensure each team member is comfortable using them, too. Never look down on an employee because they don’t know the latest messaging software; offer them the training or mentorship to become proficient.
  • Listen to your team members, and include them in the conversation by asking, “What do you think?”
  • Offer praise for a job well done, with a personal gesture such as a thank-you card.

Cultivate a Culture of Respect

You can give your employees everything from financial incentives to creative autonomy, but if they don’t feel respected or safe, they obviously won’t be motivated. Take an honest look at how you can increase the inclusivity and diversity of your workplace:

When you understand and value each member of your team, you’ll create a workplace culture where employees of all ages thrive. We’re always happy to answer your questions about this program or our other professional development opportunities. Contact us through our website or give us a call at 813-974-0950.

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