Incentives play an important role in motivating, rewarding, and energizing employees. "One size fits all" plans do not suit today's multigenerational workplace, which may span more than 50 years.

Flexible work arrangements and other initiatives aimed at enhancing quality of life have universal appeal, but the definition of "quality of life" varies by generation.

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Mature Workers
Born between 1930 and 1945, mature workers generally have had predictable career paths, worked hard for one or two companies, and moved up the ladder. They are characterized by loyalty to employers and are considered to be risk-averse and conformist. Make sure to value such employees for what they know, not just what they do.

Several surveys by the American Association of Retired Persons have shown that workers in this category will work past retirement age if offered flexible schedules, part-time hours, and temporary employment.

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Baby Boomers
Born between 1946 and 1963, this segment (the "me" generation) represents a majority of middle and upper management in most organizations. They grew up at a time of economic prosperity, and they like to win, be in charge, and make an impact. Boomers tend to focus on themselves. Employers must work hard to provide incentives of value.

  • Retirement planning. Many boomers experience anxiety over their financial future. Companies can offer help with retirement planning, pension benefits, and realistic financial planning.
  • Flexible retirement options. Many also want alternative options to traditional retirement. According to a survey by the National Institute on Aging, nearly three-quarters of boomer workers would prefer gradual retirement. They crave time for leisure activities and family, and look for part-time, job sharing, flextime, or other flexible opportunities.
  • Training. Keeping up-to-speed, especially in the area of technology, is a notable challenge for many boomer workers. Effective training can minimize employee burnout, job obsolescence, and career plateauing.
  • Sabbaticals. Increasingly, boomers are taking breaks midcareer. Sabbaticals can be an effective means of energizing these workers.

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Generation X
Born between 1964 and 1981, Generation Xers are fiercely independent, self-directed, resourceful, and skeptical of authority and institutions in general. Although they may be committed, blind company loyalty is anathema to this group. They seek an exciting and challenging environment.

  • Flexible work arrangements. They grew up without much supervision. Employers must offer autonomy, flextime, job sharing, telecommuting, sabbaticals, and so on.
  • Skill development. This generation wants to learn new skills, both to keep the job exciting and to increase their marketability. If an assignment increases their value on the job market, they are very motivated. Ongoing training, especially in technological skills, is often a requirement for employment.
  • Feedback, feedback, feedback. Generation Xers' appetite for feedback is insatiable. Although they crave autonomy, they want ready access to and abundant time with managers.
  • Tangible rewards. Employers will be most successful providing immediate, concrete, tangible rewards, such as money, dinner certificates, and tickets to cultural events.
  • Let's have fun. This group wants the balance they saw missing from their parents' lives. Their personal lives are more important than their careers. Incentives and benefits that demonstrate an organization's support of a balance are attractive to them.

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Generation Y
Some early comparisons of this generation, born after 1982, have noted similarities with Generation X. Companies hoping to capture the best of this new workforce will be wise to listen to the needs of the new workers.

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The Challenge
To retain valuable employees and encourage top performance, companies must offer incentive programs and compensation plans tailored to the needs of employees.

Copyright 1999 Bob Nelson, used with permission of the author. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Bob Nelson's Rewarding Employees newsletter.