Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: What Works Best to Motivate Employees?

motivate employees

When it comes to motivating, engaging and retaining employees, there’s no one-size-fits all strategy that small business owners can rely on.

That’s the finding of Ceridian’s Pulse of Talent Survey, which polled employees ranging from Generation Y to Baby Boomers to uncover how they feel about job rewards and recognition, performance reviews and overall career satisfaction.

Key Finding to Motivate Employees

One key finding that might make cash-strapped small business owners nervous: Job rewards (that is, monetary or non-monetary compensation).

It is the most important factor in employee engagement overall. Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents rank job rewards first, above job recognition (42 percent) and job motivation (11 percent).

Keep in mind, however, that “job rewards” include both monetary and non-monetary compensation. So if you can’t offer raises or bonuses, you can offer non-monetary rewards (something 60 percent of companies in the survey do). In fact, the survey found that younger employees are driving a shift toward non-monetary rewards.

Sixty-four per cent of employees surveyed say they would like to see their companies offer non-monetary rewards, but among Generation Y, the percentage jumped to 70 percent.

The most popular non-monetary rewards:

  • Comp time off
  • Free food or meals
  • Event tickets (to shows, sporting events and concerts)

While these do cost money, they cost less than offering raises since they’re given on an occasional, not ongoing, basis.

That said, tangible rewards like raises, bonuses and promotions still matter to Gen Y. In fact, possibly more than they do to other age groups. While 31 percent of respondents overall say they’d start job-hunting if an expected raise, bonus or promotion didn’t materialize, among Gen Y that figure jumps to 48 percent.

It Depends on the Life Stage of the Employee

Other key motivators for employees vary depending on their ages and life-stages, too. For example:

  • Gen Y and Boomer respondents are more motivated by interesting work.
  • Gen X was more motivated by good benefits and good pay/salary.

This may reflect on life stage:

  • Gen X: Typically married and raising a family with lots of financial obligations.
  • Gen Y: Carefree with fewer financial obligations.
  • Boomers: Working less from financial need and more because they want to stay mentally active.

In general, employees of all ages say being able to work at home, have flexible hours, receive additional training options and opportunities and take on additional responsibilities make their jobs more rewarding.

The Differences

There are some key generational differences:

  • Gen X: Values flexible hours most (reflecting their busy lives juggling work and children).
  • Boomers: Prefers flexible hours and training opportunities (reflecting their interest in being mentally active).
  • Gen Y: Want the chance to take on more responsibilities and handle bigger projects.

What’s the takeaway for your business?

Don’t treat your employees like they come out of a cookie-cutter mold when it comes to benefits, pay and rewards. In fact, don’t even treat employees in one generation like they’re cut from the same mold.

Sure, some Gen Y employees are fun-loving singles who live with their parents and pay no rent, but others are frazzled new parents raising twins and going to night school.

Make the effort to get to know each of your employees and what matters to them. Yes, it will take some time and thought to craft rewards that motivate each worker (and are fair to everyone else). But the effort will pay off not only in financial savings but also in improved employee satisfaction, productivity and loyalty.

Generations Photo via Shutterstock


Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a Columnist for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and free TrendCast reports.

7 Reactions
  1. Good article Reiva thank you. I just got finished reading Dan Pink’s book “Drive” and he talks a lot about how for most types of jobs money is not a motivating factor and for many types of jobs it actually hurts. Basically he says that you need to pay a fair salary but everything else should come in the form of providing employees with autonomy, learning opportunities, and purpose driven work.

    There seems to be a lot of research to back that up as well. Thoughts?

    Best Regards,

  2. Merit increment and financial rewards work best to motivate employees. Another factor is the conducive working environment where the employee has freedom to contribute his or her ideas without being stifled.

  3. Great analysis. I did not think that a person’s age has to do with how he wants his work to be. I personally like to do work that I am passionate about. I used to care about flexible hours but after working at home for 2 years, I started to prefer working in the office. I guess it is still a case to case basis because it ultimately depends on what kind of a person you are.

  4. Ask yourself what the downfalls of not motivating your employees would be. High staff turnover would just be one downfall, the possibility of your employees going to the competition is another complication. So take the gang out to dinner tonight and make them happy.