I began my workforce research more than a decade ago. My team and I sought to understand what people wanted from work. We asked ourselves: As certain skills and talent become more limited, what do companies need to do to attract and retain the workforce they need? Further, as the economy continues to shift toward jobs that depend on discretionary effort, how can companies engage and motivate their employees to dig deep and contribute their best efforts?
In our initial research, we divided our team into three sub-teams — each one assigned to conduct interviews with members of one of three major generations in the workforce: boomers, Generation Xers and Generation Y’s.
When we held our full team meeting, each sub-team was eager to report its findings. Each felt it had identified the critical practice that would drive attraction, retention and engagement. One after another, the sub-teams reported that the key for their assigned generation was flexibility.
Boomers, now in their 50s and early 60s, have been driven by the sheer size of their cohort to work hard to remain competitive at all times. For most, teenage ideals around making a difference have been on the back burner for the past 30 years. However, as those in this generation begin to imagine their next life phase, most are looking to shift their focus — to put more emphasis on activities that give back or make a difference. For some, these activities may be philanthropic; for others, entrepreneurial, artistic or social. Whatever elements they add to their life mosaic will almost certainly require more flexible forms of work.
Members of Generation X, in their 30s and 40s today, are juggling multiple commitments. For many, their formative experiences included working parents, a latchkey childhood and single-parent homes. Many hold strong personal convictions about the type of parent they want to be — personal standards that often include the amount of time they want to spend or the types of activities they want to support. To juggle their complex lives, Xers need workplace flexibility.
Xers also want options for the way they shape their careers. Witnessing mass layoffs as teens and the changing social contract between employees and employers has left this generation committed to owning their careers and being self-reliant. They are drawn to companies that provide flexible career options.
Members of Generation Y were shaped during the early 2000s, when primary topics of adult conversation were terrorism and school violence. They adopted a world view in which random events could happen to anyone at any time. Not surprisingly, they are focused on the immediate reality, driven to live each day to the fullest. They look for work environments that enable them to pursue activities — at work and outside work — that they find meaningful and challenging.
Flexibility means something different for each generation. For boomers, the most important type of flexibility is the ability to fit other activities into a previously work-intensive life. The most popular form for many are cyclic arrangements: working full time for a period of time — say, several months — then being off for a similar period, able to focus on other activities. Other part-time arrangements and ways of down-scaling — taking on less responsibility — are also valuable to boomers.
For Gen Xers, flexibility has a day-to-day connotation — the ability to shift work commitments based on the unpredictable challenges posed by family or other demands. It also has a career path dimension. Xers don’t necessarily want to follow the same paths pursued by boomers. Most want to be able to create their own paths forward and choose from multiple options.
Flexibility for Y’s serves their desire to make each day meaningful and challenging. They like the flexibility to try new tasks, to move laterally and learn new skills. They also like the option of pursuing external opportunities as they arise — to travel, for example, or take on special projects.
Although flexibility takes different forms, it’s an essential element to attract, retain and engage employees of all ages in tomorrow’s workforce.
Tamara J. Erickson is founder and CEO of Tammy Erickson Associates, a business consulting firm, and author of four books, including What’s Next, Gen X? She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.