Use the Right Incentives for Gen Y, Gen X, and Boomers

14 Dec. 2011 | Comments (0)

Featured Guest: Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and coauthor of the HBR article How Gen Y and Boomers Will Reshape Your Agenda.


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SARAH GREEN: Hi. I'm Sarah Green from hbr.org. I'm here today with economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy and author, with Laura Sherbin and Karen Sumberg, of the Harvard Business Review article "How Gen Y and Boomers Will Reshape Your Agenda."

Thanks so much for joining us today.

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: It's great to be here, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN: So according to your research, what are the similarities between Gen Y and Boomers, and how are both different from Gen X?

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: Well, the first fact to start with is the power of these generations. Each of them is roughly twice the size of the intervening Gen X generation. They're around the 80 million mark each. So these are the 600-pound gorillas of the workplace. And so whatever values they have, they have the power to drive them, because they're such a big chunk of the workplace.

And what we show in this article is that they have a rewards remix going on. They really do want a bunch of other stuff. I think one of the most dramatic set of facts in this article is that there's five rewards of work that they value as much as or even more than the sheer size of the pay package.

SARAH GREEN: Well, let's delve a little more, then, into those five principles or non-financial incentives. Because certainly when the economy is down, non-financial incentives become even more attractive.

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: Absolutely.

SARAH GREEN: Can you spell out what those are?

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: Of course. So the first thing that both of these generations are looking for is what we call odyssey. They really crave a range of new experiences. They love the idea of either having a global assignment with the company they're working for, or perhaps a three-month sabbatical that allows them to go work on Girl Power in Bangladesh. They are interested in spreading their wings, in searching for meaning. And these mini-sabbaticals are one of their favorite incentives that they would like in place if they are going to stick with the company.

A second thing that they're really craving in their daily work life is a rich form of flexibility, really a measure of control of when, where, and how work gets done. But one of the comforts, I think, for employers here is that they don't want limitless remote working possibilities. A half-day, a day a week of telecommuting options, or perhaps a staggered hour situation on Fridays, this is what they want. They just want at the margin some measure of control over the long-hour work week, which we all struggle with these days.

SARAH GREEN: So the first two are odyssey and flexibility.

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: Right. And then the other thing, obviously, which I think is common to many workers many places, the meaning and purpose and challenge of their work. They love being pushed into stretch assignments. The idea that they are expanding their minds and challenging themselves, very important to this generation.

Diverse teams, well-functioning teams is really the fourth thing they're looking for. The idea that they can work closely with a range of colleagues, perhaps across the world, really makes them want to give 110%. That's something that they are absolutely seeking.

SARAH GREEN: And then, what would be the final element that they're looking for?

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: The final one, which is so very powerful, is their need for a measure of altruism in their work. They're all big-time volunteers, they do a whole bunch of stuff, the weekends, on their own time. But huge numbers of both Gen Y and Boomers-- 80% of them, in fact-- want employers to get involved in allowing them to give back.

And one of the big examples in the book is Pfizer's new program, which is called Global Access, which gives the opportunity to many employees in the global space to get involved in a program which produces low-cost health care solutions for the working poor in places like Bangladesh. And, in fact, they have partnered with the Grameen Bank in this project. It's turned into a huge recruiting tool for Gen Y, because they love the idea that this big, giant drug company is giving back to the world and creating solutions for the needs of the lower tier, if you like. A program that really taps into the altruism of this generation.

SARAH GREEN: Now, for Gen X, does this mean that they don't value altruism or that they don't want flexibility? What does this mean for Gen X?

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: Well, obviously we surveyed Gen X, too. And the story around Gen X is that these things are somewhat important to them. But, for instance, Gen X is 23% more likely to see compensation as the big driver, which is a traditional thing.

We've always assumed that the workers in the workplace are mainly there for the pay package. And I think it can be explained a little bit by where they are at in life. Because this is a very burdened generation right this second. Maybe their mortgage is underwater, maybe their stock options are underwater. And they're the generation with the small kids, the balancing act, the private-school tuitions, et cetera, et cetera. So for them, maximizing the size of their pay package is still predominantly something that they put first.

So you see a big difference between Gen X and the other generations in terms of the priorities of what they're looking for in terms of the compensation package.

SARAH GREEN: So as far as a management challenge, then, for Gen X, is it going to be difficult for them to manage up and manage down when the bookend generations have maybe a different set of values or priorities?

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: I think in some ways they're in a difficult situation right now, because they do see that they've got these, as they put it, slightly flaky generations on either side of them, with their odysseys and their need for flex. But they are sufficiently large-minded, I think, to see that in the future, they'll want that stuff, too. In fact, they say that, in 10 years, hey, I'll want this. So they're, I think, willing to endorse the notion that this should be part of what employers offer.

The other thing I guess I might want to add is that there's some very interesting ethnic differences in the data. We were able to show, for instance, that African-American and Hispanic Gen Y people are more plugged into the altruism. It is tremendously important to them that companies give back to the community.

The other thing we found that in the communication style-- all of this generation is obviously very tech-savvy-- they really do use those social networks and all of the gadgets of technology. But, again, in terms of their preferred communication style, there's real interest in the difference between the groups.

For instance, African-American young professionals totally prefer one-on-one contact. They seem to distrust communication through email. Whereas young Asian talent much prefer email to face-to-face contact. So I think some of this data gives real tools to managers, because it does really map out what might be the best ways of really getting through to some of your best young talent.

SARAH GREEN: You gave an example of Pfizer as one company that's making the most of these differences. Is there another company that's managing these tensions well?

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: A company which I guess is pretty famous for this, and it really stands up in the research, Google has done a pretty fabulous job in showing through their workplace design and through the work teams they put together how much they value flexibility, how they value an eco-friendly, healing-the-planet environment. So they very much tap into the altruism and the need for flexibility, and even a little bit of on-site odyssey in terms of how they design the daily work environment. And I think that's been very effective in producing a highly engaged workforce.

SARAH GREEN: Thanks so much for joining us.

SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT: It was wonderful to be here.

SARAH GREEN: That was Sylvia Ann Hewlett. For more from Sylvia, go to hbr.org.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 7/30/2009.

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