Communicating Across Age Borders. What Drives a Generation?

by | Mar 6, 2015 | Employee Engagement, Employee Recognition, Recognition Program

One of the most unique aspects of today’s workforce is its age diversity. At no point in history have so many different generations of people been actively employed. Contemporary business leaders are managing groups with varied backgrounds, needs, and worldviews. In this piece, we will examine ways to communicate with and motivate employees of each generation to work together and achieve goals.

Every business leader works with different types of employees, companies, distributors, or buyers. All leaders, however, want the same thing from their professional relationships: motivation and productivity. The key to motivating anyone is communication. One of the best ways to communicate workplace goals is by offering incentives. Incentives provide rewards for desired behaviors and send the clear, tangible message that hard work is appreciated. Incentive programs through companies like Incentive Solutions or Globoforce help team leaders address the challenges of motivating employees, distributors, and buyers alike.

A comprehensive incentive strategy with diverse rewards is the best way to motivate employees with varying personalities, priorities and needs. One thing everyone wants? Compensation. Money contributes to the two most basic psychological needs that drive people: physiological security and personal safety. But cash isn’t the best or most meaningful way to motivate employees, and it shouldn’t be the only incentive reward employees are offered. Many companies are ripe for developing or expanding employee incentive plans that address multiple needs and inspire people across generations. This article addresses both generational differences and psychological needs in order to understand what motivates employees these days, and why.

To effectively communicate with and motivate today’s dynamic population, it’s important for managers to first understand what defines each generation. Then, the different needs and styles from one group to another become very recognizable.


Traditionalists, also known as Veterans, are the oldest generation in today’s workforce. They were born before 1946 and were shaped namely by WWII and the Great Depression.

Raised on respecting authority and living by rules, their approach to work is rooted in hierarchy leadership, loyalty, fairness, and long-term dedication. Their goal is to be a team-player in a steady, lifelong career and to establish a legacy.

Baby Boomers

Born between 1946 and 1964, Baby Boomers were affected by rapid cultural change in the 1960s. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, civil rights unrest, Vietnam, and the moon landing influenced the society in which they grew up.

An unpredictable environment reinforced adaptability and individuality in Baby Boomers. Optimistic, dedicated, and driven, they value democratic leadership and clearly defined goals. Meetings and personal connections are important to Baby Boomers. They enjoy visible recognition and face-time with co-workers.

Generation X

Generation X was born after 1965 and before 1980. Their highly individualistic and skeptical nature is sometimes interpreted as the “slacker” generation, but their independence and ability to self-direct can be valuable assets. Their landmark cultural events were the Watergate scandal, unprecedentedly high divorce rates, and the Challenger explosion.

They tend to prefer a competence-based leadership system, an even balance between work and home life, and streamlined setups. Experience and easily transportable skills are more valuable to them than company loyalty or recognition.


Also called Generation Y, Millennials were born between 1981 and 1994, with the new millennium imminent. Violent events such as the Columbine shootings, 9/11, and the Oklahoma City bombing impacted their worldview and massive recession marked their entrance into the workforce. Nonetheless, the messages Millennials grew up with were often positive, reinforcing individuality and personal achievement. Many criticize these messages for being too optimistic, creating overly high expectations and a sense of entitlement in their generation.

Growing up in the age of the Internet and instant connections made Millennials a very social and communicative group. They value open-door policies and constant positive reinforcement. (Lollis, H., 2014).

Understand the Hierarchy of Needs

After establishing what each generation is like, it’s easier to figure out what they want and need. Needs are at the root of everyone’s motivations. While specific needs vary from person to person, especially when age or gender differences are involved, five basic concepts motivate every individual: physiological wellness, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed these needs and referred to them as the hierarchy of needs. Understanding generational traits and cultural events will help in understanding the psychology of certain generations. For example, the AIDS epidemic of the 80s greatly influenced the physiological security of Generation Xers.

Maslow’s needs are typically arranged in a pyramid according to importance. Physiological and safety needs are the most vital needs, placed at the bottom. After that, belonging is the most important need, followed by esteem, with self-actualization at the top. When each need is met, the need above it becomes primary(Maslow’s Hierarchy, 2015). In other words, someone who already feels a sense of belonging may be motivated mostly by esteem needs. Someone who feels their esteem needs met may be driven to achieve self-actualization. Different employees can be at different stages in their development. Not everyone is motivated by the same need.


For the most part, motivation and communication in the workplace only extends to three needs: belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.


The need to belong to a group comes from the desire to find acceptance and meaningful interaction among peers. Being isolated from a workplace group results in disengagement from coworkers and disinterest in individual or group success.


Once people are satisfied that they belong to a group, they desire support and recognition from that group. This is the point at which honors, promotions, and awards become important to an employee.


Those workers seeking self-actualization are at the peak of the needs hierarchy, meaning they have satisfied every need but one: the feeling that they are the best they can absolutely be regarding at job. These people can be the hardest to satisfy and motivate. The path to a fully-realized sense of self varies from person to person.

Use Flexible Communication to Address Every Generation’s Needs

The ways Maslow’s needs influence motivation can become complex. Not every generation entered the workforce at the same point on the needs hierarchy. As society progressed, it afforded each generation more comfort and more met needs (Espinoza, C., Rusch, C., Ukleja, M., 2010). From one generation to another, there can be drastic differences in needs. Different needs translate to different motivations. This means leaders and managers need comprehensive, flexible approaches to motivate employees.

The first obstacle in motivating a generational mix is to communicate incentives and goals in a way that’s interesting and invigorating to employees. The more an audience relates to a message, the more meaningful it will be to them. Create a message that is relevant and enticing to the target demographic, then deliver the message through a medium in which they’re already interested and comfortable. Millennials may check every mobile message as soon as they hear the alert, for instance, but may ignore notices posted on bulletin boards or in newsletters.

Industries are often most concerned with communicating with Millennials in particular because they are the fastest growing generation in the workplace (Generations in the Workplace…, 2014). More and more businesses will continue to try to integrate them and work alongside their particular values. The Millennial generation is also important because their behavior is today’s dominant lifestyle, and it influences other generations. As Mandy Freeman, Director of Account Management at Incentive Solutions, puts it, “Millennials are teaching their parents and grandparents how to keep up with their culture, and the past generations are fast learners.”

The Millennial influence is not all-encompassing, though. Baby Boomers may be more responsive to person-to-person meetings about incentives, and Generation Xers may prefer e-mails. Productive communication reaches every generation with a variety of delivery methods.

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Managers need a system of recognition to complete the connection between communication, motivation, and reward. Many organizations use incentive programs, which are designed to deliver these rewards to employees for their excellence or to customers for loyalty. Good incentive programs are built with effective communication in mind. To produce the best results, incentive software should feature inclusive communication options and employee recognition ideas that work for multiple personality types. Steve Damerow, CEO of Incentive Solutions, says “The same way that Generation X snubbed snail mail for e-mail, Millennials migrated from e-mail and react more favorably to texts and two-way push notification. If you’re serious about having a successful promotion, you need to offer it all.”

Provide Inclusive Incentives

When incentive goals have been clearly communicated, the next step is providing desirable awards. The greater variety of satisfaction employees derive, the more likely their needs will be met. Rewarding top-performing employees with gifts, travel opportunities, and notoriety is a cross-generational benefit. Traditionalists and Baby Boomers appreciate the respect associated with public recognition. Generation Xers enjoy the acknowledgement of their skills and the enrichment of their off-time. Millennials love a steady stream of praise, encouragement, and emotional connection.

Traditionalists and Baby Boomers (those most likely to be concerned with safety and job security) love bonuses and cash rewards, but Millennials are more focused on an inner sense of achievement. They attach to experiences and messages that validate them. Traveling and attending concerts, for example, are experiences a Millennial would be thrilled to post about on social media. Not only would they be able to satisfy their love of talking and sharing, they would have visible evidence of their own success. When their achievements become a topic of conversation, not just an idea, Millennials can achieve the need for self-actualization.

Ideal incentive plans are multi-functional, dynamic, and fun to use. Platforms like RewardTrax, Atlanta-based incentive technology developed by Performance Systems Group, offers a variety of configurable modules that suit many different people. RewardTrax includes the Total Recognition Suite, a module add-on in which participants can communicate and recognize each other for hard work and extra effort. The social media aspect appeals to chatty Millennials, but also builds their confidence and sense of comradery, addressing belonging and esteem needs. Up-to-date, adaptive incentive programs might also take a cue from the Millennials’ constantly connected, on-the-go culture and develop a mobile app from of its incentive program.


Other features of successful recognition platforms allow participants to be in charge of their own achievements. Survey rewards let users take quizzes to stay updated on company policies, information, and new releases. This appeals to the Generation Xers’ desire to be capable and self-taught, as well as to the Baby Boomers’ love of clearly defined objectives.

Leaderboards and performance tracking help employees, sales teams, or distributors see their rankings in productivity, sales, or company goals. These features can address elements of all generations’ preferences. Traditionalists will value the hierarchy in knowing who is best at what they do and Baby Boomers’ thirst for visible recognition will be sated. Gen Xers’ love being part of meritocracy, and Millennials enjoy shared, game-like bonding with peers.

As the workplace climate changes, so will the effectiveness of management tactics. Inclusive communication and diverse incentives can improve any realm of business, including employee and sales productivity, marketing, and customer relations. The most successful, motivational messages are in touch with the generational perspectives and the hierarchy of needs that vary from person to person. When trying to understand what drives people to be more productive, incentive companies like Incentive Solutions, Loyaltyworks, Martiz, or Hinda can provide expert insight due to their experience communicating with all generations and inspiring employees of all kinds to exceed expectations. Communication and motivation, ultimately, drive every industry toward progress.


Espinoza, C., Rusch, C., Ukleja, M. (2010). Managing the millennials: Discover the core competencies for managing today’s workforce. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Generations in the Workplace: The Convergence of Baby Boomers, Generation X & Millennials. (n.d.). In EBSCO Publishing, Inc. Retrieved January 15, 2015, from

Lollis, H. (2014). Millennial generation: Strategies to engage and communicate.

Maslow’s Hierarchy. (n.d.). In College of the Redwoods. Retrieved January 15, 2015, from

<strong>About </strong>Nichole Gunn

About Nichole Gunn

Nichole Gunn is the VP of Marketing at Incentive Solutions, an Atlanta-based incentive company that delivers advanced, agile B2B customer loyalty and channel sales incentives programs.

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