What Employees Really Want in Their 20s and 40s

Boost your employee retention rate by thinking hard about what your staff needs, as individuals, not as a group.
July 29, 2013

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a magic formula that makes our best employees loyal to our businesses? Unfortunately, there isn’t. Don’t give up, though; there are some ways to improve the odds of hanging on to key staffers. Step number-one is realizing your employees are not one monolithic group who will positively respond to the same enticements. From my 30-plus years managing employees, I’ve learned what motivates employees in their 20s won’t necessarily work when they’re in their 40s. So it helps to think about your employees and their life stages.

Millennial workers are making the transition from the (relatively) carefree high school or college experience to the reality of the workplace. What’s most likely to appeal to them? A fun workplace they never want to leave because that’s where their friends (your other Gen Y workers) are. 

But as employees get older, and start having families, they’ve got other ties pulling them away from the workplace. No matter how much they enjoy their jobs, they're less likely to work late in exchange for some pizza, and more likely to want to get home for dinner with their families. A workplace that offers flexibility so they can do things like attend their child’s school play is more likely to appeal to them.

To increase employee loyalty, try these ideas:

20-Somethings: Make It Fun

More than prior generations did at the same age, millennials value work-life balance. A global study earlier this year by PwC shows 71 percent of Gen Y workers (vs. 63 percent of older employees) think work demands significantly interfere with their personal lives.

Millennials want to work hard and play hard, so make work a place where they can play hard too. Tech giants like Google get workers to put in long hours by creating a place they never want to leave. If you care about exercising and getting together with friends, but you can rock-climb with your buds at the on-site company gym and then eat with them in the gourmet cafeteria, why not work until midnight?

You don’t need a Google-sized budget to pull this off either. Try fostering loyalty with your younger staff by encouraging group activities, such as after-work happy hours, Friday afternoon beer busts, bowling leagues or weekly pizza lunches.

And it doesn’t cost a fortune—or even a dime—to create a fun, friendly environment. Let your employees come up with their own ideas. Stuff my young team did over the years included potlucks where everyone brought in a dish reflecting their ethnic heritage, Halloween dress-up days, bringing in baby pictures and guessing who was who, having a bake-off, entering chili cook-off competitions, performing “Mack the Knife” complete with choreography (don’t ask) and having a karaoke contest. Contests can be a fun way to get everyone together—offer a small prize like a gift card or the best parking spot for a month to get the competition going.

40-Somethings: It’s About Balance

Employees in their 40s are squeezed between tons of demands, from spouses and kids to aging parents. Most can’t make it work without some flexibility on the boss’s part. Remote work and flexible hours are biggies here. Even if you can’t allow employees to work at home (a perk 20-somethings love too), consider a flextime (or time-shifted) schedule such as letting employees craft their own 8-hour works days by staggering start times. Some may want to start working at 6 a.m.; others will prefer coming in at 10.

Time off is a big factor for employees of all ages, but parents are particularly likely to value paid time off they can use for child-related activities such as school conferences or doctor’s appointments. Many parents struggle to deal with child care during school holidays, making a paid week off between Christmas and New Year’s an awesome benefit.

Time-shifted or flexible schedules can make all the difference in retaining working moms. If that’s not enough—if you get to the point where your valued mom employees are considering leaving the workforce—consider offering job-sharing.

Finally, as your employees get older, look into stress management and wellness programs that not only help them deal with life, but also cut your health-care costs. Talk to your health insurance providers about what they offer, or team with other small businesses in your office park or building to bring in a yoga instructor or meditation teacher once a week for classes or a masseuse to give 15-minute neck rubs.

Of course, you can’t offer a perk to one employee and not the other. I’m not suggesting that you allow only moms to work from home or limit the company beer bash to those under 30. Basing perks on age, marital status, gender or other similar factors will open you up to a lawsuit—not to mention a ton of resentment from the other employees. What I am saying is that you need to take your employees’ personal situations and life stages into account, and tailor perks that will appeal to their priorities and needs right now.

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Photo: Getty Images