job satisfaction by generation

Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Definition of Job Satisfaction by Generation

Recruiting and retaining the right employees has become far more nuanced in the last ten years. There are multiple generations active in the workplace, each filling different needs. But they also have different professional goals. While all would profess they want to feel a sense of motivation, the definition of job satisfaction by generation is particular to each.

Understanding How Job Satisfaction by Generation Differs and Why

See change.

One challenge for employers is simply trying to meet so many needs at once. Understanding the values that will attract the right talent requires a dynamic recruiting and hiring strategy. It also means managing and retaining a workforce with such divergent needs. Baby Boomers are still very much in the market, but Gen X is ascending into leadership positions. Gen Y will soon be the largest group in the workforce, and Gen Z workers are beginning their careers. The balance of these populations will evolve over time, and organisations will need to be able to adjust accordingly.

History (doesn’t) repeat itself.

Understanding the different definitions of job satisfaction by generation starts with recognising that Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y have had incredibly distinct experiences. Baby Boomers grew up in a booming post-war economy and enjoyed greater opportunities for higher education and professional employment. They also drove efforts to create more opportunities in their youth during the 1960s for those who were traditionally unable, particularly minorities and women. By the 1980s, the success of this empowerment was measured by economic and professional achievement.

Baby Boomers’ sense of meaningful, satisfying work is deen through1980s lens where access, means money, means power. They tend to be satisfied by consistent promotion, recognition of achievement, and financial reward. Most of them are in the final years of their career, so they tend to care more about making sure they’re ready for retirement financially. They’re less concerned with flexible working arrangements or increased vacation days.

X marks the spot.

Gen X expectations and values make sense in the context of the generation above them. The increase in working women also correlated with more divorce and dual income homes. Gen X children were much more likely to come home from school to empty houses. The “latchkey” generation is far more self-reliant and independent than prior generations. They are both driven by, yet wary of, the iconic 1980s’ “Wall Street” and “Working Girl” glamourisation of success. They were the beneficiaries on one hand, enjoying the highest levels of education in history.

But they also are aware of the cost to a domestic life that comes with being ambitious. As a result, they do care about traditional financial incentives, but they also want more of a work-life balance. They want a culture at work that not only accommodates but actively supports working parents, especially working mothers. That can mean extended parental leave, subsidised childcare, or the ability to work remotely. They are also conscious of, and feel indebted to, the Baby Boomers’ social movement and want to see racial and gender diversity, especially at senior levels.

Y they are different.

The reputation of Gen Y as egotistic, oversensitive and irreverent has been criticised by some as overblown or not put into context. Trends in social media, technological advancement and connectivity constantly evolve, requiring one to quickly abandon and adopt the tools they need. Baby Boomers equate quality and craftsmanship in things that outlast newer models. For Gen Y, old things are often inherently less useful, or slower – literally unable to update and keep pace. In a polar opposite contrast to Gen X, they grew up with “helicopter parents”, who were ever present and who chose to work with a childrearing style of positive reinforcement. The result is a sense of confidence that can read as entitlement. At the same time, they are most likely to struggle with critical feedback or abject failure – while also entering the workforce during one of the worst job markets in recent times.

For employers, the key to satisfying Millennials is to understand and accommodate their expectation to ascend in rank and decision making quickly. They don’t equate years on the job with increased expertise, especially in areas that evolve constantly like social media or smart technology. They need to have the feeling of empowerment in decision-making, and require a soft touch when given different directions. For better or worse (but probably better), they take gender equality, racial diversity and social responsibility as baseline requirements of an employer — a gating item to accepting a job offer, tantamount to health care or vacation days. That said, these things all matter to them more than money. Their job satisfaction is much more tied to autonomy, influence, and alignment of social values.

Some of the expectations of job satisfaction by generation may seem contradictory. But on close examination, many of these needs can co-exist. An employer can simultaneously provide most of the elements each group seeks. Which element translates to greater job satisfaction will likely be finite by age. With others, it may go unnoticed – but it also won’t offend.

Therefore the decision to appeal to many different workers is at most burdensome, not binary. And it’s worth nothing that while the number of factors to consider has increased, the economics have not. Even the most robust investment necessary to meet this broad base of job satisfaction pales in comparison to the investments we used to make — pension funds, for example, or even individual offices. The good old days were simpler, but a lot more expensive.


Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

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