New expectations: Meeting the needs of four generations

It is not breaking news to anyone, especially if you are in HR, that the workforce is more diverse than ever before. And this diversity is most apparent in the range of age groups working together in businesses across all industries.

As our life expectancy expands and more employees plan to work beyond their early sixties, American offices have become increasingly multigenerational. According to Pew Research, the labor force now consists of 34% Millennials, 34% Generation X, 29% Baby Boomers and 2% Traditionalists (also known as “Silents.”).1

Part of the challenge of managing and designing benefit packages for a multi-generational office is that employees have different needs at different stages of their lives. But we all know that, it’s always been that way. 

What has now changed is that there are significant differences among what these four generations of workers expect from their employers. In fact, they upend stereotypes of what workers value at different phases of their lives.

These changing expectations are especially important to HR managers, who faced with a looming labor shortage,2  are now tasked with recruiting across the four generations. Matching expectations of workers to benefits plays a crucial role in that effort.

Understanding the generations
In just four short years, Millennials—the generation defined as being born between 1982 and 20003 —will make up almost 50% of the workforce.  HR managers have already begun grappling with how to adjust their offerings for this generation. 

In a report about what Millennials expect from employee benefits,5  MetLife notes that Millennials grew up in “one of the most intense child-protection movements in American history.” They had drug-free school zones, childproofed homes, and AMBER alerts. They expect to be protected—and when it comes to work, they expect their employers to take a more active role in helping them be successful. This is true of employee benefit offerings and education as well.

But what do they need? According to MetLife’s 14th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study—around 41% of Millennials live paycheck-to-paycheck and 39% feel overwhelmed by financial decisions.6

Nearly a third7 of these millennials say they appreciate employer incentives that encourage them to improve their financial well-being.

Generation Xis generally associated with traditional family decisions. Almost half (47%) are married with children, while 59% say major life events (marriage, divorce, new child, etc.) impact their benefit considerations. At the same time, 34% are living paycheck-to-paycheck.9 The older members of this generation are also starting to take care of elder parents while continuing to care for young children.

Baby Boomers10 are getting close to retirement age. The Washington Post estimates that about 10,000 Boomers a day pack it up and head off into the sunset towards retirement.11 Yet, at the same time, the MetLife 14th Annual Employee Benefit Trends Study indicates many retired Boomers are choosing to return to the workforce.

Boomers are choosing to return to the workforce. The Society for Human Resource Management found that 72% of Boomers who remain on the job do so because of money, 58% because they enjoy their work and it occupies their time, and 45% stay because of healthcare benefits.12

As for those ages 65 and beyond, close to 80% of them are confident in their finances, but 50% also have concerns about outliving their retirement savings. They’re also worried about out-of-pocket medical costs that aren’t covered by health insurance and their families’ financial security in the event of their premature deaths, according to MetLife’s 14th Annual Employee Benefit Trends Study. 

Beyond the paycheck
Looking over the four groups, it would make sense for Baby Boomers to worry more than other generations about retirement and for Generation X to have anxiety about paying for their children’s college tuition. As it happens, Millennials are more nervous on both counts. A MetLife study shows that 51% of Millennials strongly value retirement planning classes, compared to just 39% of Boomers.13 The same study shows that 56% of Millennials are “very concerned” about having enough money for their children’s college education, compared to only 52% of Gen Xers and 44% of younger Boomers.

Such findings demonstrate that presuming expectations about any generation is very last century.

Gen Xers and Millennials, for instance, both like the option to buy additional voluntary benefits more than Boomers do, though for different reasons.14

Gen Xers value the option of choice and tailoring packages to their individual needs, while Millennials prefer a comprehensive benefits package that maximizes protection and minimizes uncertainty.15

Millennials also think about the nature and purpose of their work differently than other generations. Eve Turow Paul, an author and advisor on issues facing Millennials—and a Millennial herself—says the key to understanding this group is contingent upon understanding how they grew up.

“We’ve seen our parents work hard and long hours with a focus on financial gains,” says Paul. “For this generation, there is a question of, ‘What is the purpose of my work? Is it just for financial gain?’ I don’t think people are very satisfied by that. Because of that, there are new expectations we have from our employers.”

In other words, employers looking to please the next generation of workers are under pressure not only to provide jobs that make young employees feel secure and give them a financial foundation for their futures, but also to make them feel that their work is meaningful. Those who accept the challenge stand to reap significant benefits. “Young people want to work for places that reflect their own value systems,” Paul says.

"If you can foster a value system that young people feel passionate about, you’re going to have incredibly dedicated and passionate workers.”

Of course, Millennials aren’t the only game in town when it comes to HR managers striving to meet expectations. Having a strong awareness of the perspectives of four generations and knowing what motivates them is a key to engagement. Each group may have different viewpoints and different needs, but some things never change: when employees feel valued and listened to, they are more passionate and dedicated workers. No matter how old—or young—they are.

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2 Wall Street Journal. “The U.S. Occupations at Greatest Risk of Labor Shortage.”

3 Born 1928 to 1945. “The Hows and Whys of Generations Research.” Pew Research Center.


5 “How the Millennial Generation Is Transforming Employee Benefits” by Neil Howe, published in MetLife’s Benefits Quarterly in the second quarter of 2014

6 MetLife’s 14th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study

“Here's What Makes Generation Z and Millennials Happy at Work”

8 Born between 1965 and 1984.

9 MetLife’s 14th Annual U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study

10 Born between 1946 and 1964.

11  Washington Post. “Do 10,000 Baby Boomers Retire Every Day?”


13  MetLife 2012 10th Annual Study of Employee Benefit Trends, as quoted in Benefits Quarterly article, “How the Millennial Generation Is Transforming Employee Benefits.”

14 Benefits Quarterly article, “How the Millennial Generation Is Transforming Employee Benefits.” 

15 Benefits Quarterly article, “How the Millennial Generation Is Transforming Employee Benefits.”