In conversations about what people of different ages want at work, stereotypes abound. You’ve probably heard all the clichés. Baby boomers are greedy. Gen Xers are neglected. Millennials are high-maintenance. Gen Zers are quitters

Is there any truth to these views? Or enough truth, at least, to change how your organization thinks about employee rewards and recognition programs?  

For leaders tasked with managing and motivating their multigenerational workforces, it’s important to ask whether different cohorts want different things from a total rewards program.  

What Do All Employees Want?  

Employees of separate generations tend to have more in common than not, especially when it comes to how they are rewarded for their work.  

“There are some things that are universal,” explains Tom McMullen, a Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry. “Cash and benefits are incredibly important to everybody. But employees of all generations also care about a whole lot more.”  

For instance, he says all workers want reassurance that the organization is going in what they perceive to be a healthy direction. Changes like pay cuts or benefits freezes raise alarm bells for everyone.  

McMullen adds that increasingly, all four of the different generations in the workplace also want to see signs that their employer cares about them. 

That said, if you want to provide the best total rewards for each segment of your multigenerational workforce, there are some nuances about each generation you should understand.  

We consulted Korn Ferry experts and pored through aggregated Korn Ferry Listen and our Workforce 2024 Global Insights Report data to tease out what you need to know to create a total rewards program that works for all ages. 

“Cash and benefits are incredibly important to everybody. But employees of all generations also care about a whole lot more.”

Best Total Rewards for Gen Z 

Gen Z employees (born between 1997 and 2012) are, by and large, a hopeful and happy crew.  

“A lot of the talk about people being turned off at work, disengaged, or ‘quiet quitting’ gets directed at workers under 30,” says Mark Royal, a Senior Client Partner for Korn Ferry Advisory. “But we don’t see them emerging as a demotivated group.”  

What motivates Gen Z? They tend to care a lot about what they do. They crave development opportunities, so education-related subsidies and benefits hold appeal. They are disproportionately motivated to work for organizations that do good, so charitable matching programs or paid volunteer days are likely to appeal.  

They also care more than any other generation about their employer’s diversity, equity, and inclusion practices, according to new data from Workforce 2024, Korn Ferry’s survey of workers around the world. 

Perhaps most notably, they tend to speak freely about what they earn—and expect their organizations to share this often-taboo information publicly.  

“Gen Zers are very open to talking about money. It’s the way they’re wired,” McMullen explains. “They think nothing of saying to a friend or colleague, ‘Hey, what do you make? I'm making this.’”  

In other words, if pay transparency isn’t on your radar, it probably ought to be. 

Opportunity: Share Your Compensation Philosophy 

Data from Korn Ferry Listen suggests that the youngest employees in the workforce have the weakest understanding of compensation policies and practices that affect them. Satisfy their need-to-know mentality and desire for transparency by making your compensation philosophy statement clear and easy to find. (Or create one, if you’re one of the 40% of companies that haven’t yet done so.) 

Best Total Rewards for Millennials 

Many millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) find themselves in something of a transitional career phase. They’re now firmly in their building years, buying homes, starting families, and pursuing the professional milestones their extensive educations conditioned them to expect.  

Yet many are also carrying high levels of debt, struggling to keep up with inflation, and managing new expenses—all while earning less than they’d like.  

“A lot of millennials are feeling behind in their careers, and they’re a little impatient to make things happen,” Royal explains. As a result, millennials’ priority in total rewards is clear: money, with a side of professional development opportunities.  

Opportunity: Boost Millennial Compensation 

While our data shows that millennials are happier with their pay than they were five years ago, they nonetheless remain the least satisfied of all the generational cohorts, with barely half saying their take-home fairly reflects their contributions. If you’re wavering on how to calibrate the salary/benefits mix for this cohort, consider leaning harder on the former. 

Best Total Rewards for Gen X 

In general, reality no longer bites for Gen X employees (born between 1965 and 1980). They’re experienced, established, and in (or near) peak earning years. Yet they have plenty of road left before retirement, so many are seeking reassurance that they still have a role to play—and that they can still make a difference.  

“In this cohort, there’s a bias to having stability,” Royal says. “They really want to know that their company is on the right path and that they won’t have to make a switch to continue a viable career.”  

What motivates Gen X best are benefits that connect them to the future, such as competitive retirement savings plans or incentive programs tied to longer-term milestones.  

Opportunity: Add Non-Financial Rewards 

Data from Korn Ferry Listen suggests that Gen Xers are likelier than most others to say their benefits and pay are fair. Double down on that sentiment with robust non-financial rewards that boost job satisfaction, like flexible work or wellness programs.

Total Rewards

A great total rewards program is better for business and your employees

Best Total Rewards for Baby Boomers 

Baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are opting to keep working well past what was once considered retirement age—or “unretiring” when they find they miss the stimulation and purpose of work.  

Baby boomers tend to have the experience, expertise, and institutional knowledge workplaces need. Although they tend to be financially stable, this generation is highly motivated by a generous salary, along with flexibility of working hours, according to data from Korn Ferry’s Workforce 2024 report. 

Older employees might require more accommodations, but it’s worth the effort. After decades honing their skills and knowledge, McMullen says that businesses find baby boomers incredibly valuable. 

Opportunity: Give Baby Boomers Clarity 

Korn Ferry Listen data suggests that employees in nearly every age cohort have a weaker grasp of the benefits available to them than they did five years ago, but the knowledge gap is widening fastest among the 60-plus set.  

Contrary to the oblivious "OK, boomer" stereotype, people in this cohort are voracious learners who value expertise and evidence. Offering boomers plenty of detailed information about the breadth and scope of your benefits—and explaining your rationale for them—will help meet their need to know. 

How to Build a Total Rewards Program for Your Multigenerational Workforce 

While all workers want excellent pay and benefits, it’s important to recognize that workers of differing ages do indeed need some different things from their total rewards. What’s more, these needs can vary depending on your industry, location, and organizational culture.  

Taking the time to better understand what your employees actually want, and then calibrating your total rewards programbased on what you learn, can help ensure all cohorts in your multigenerational workforce feel valued, engaged, and fairly rewarded.

Related Capabilities