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Article 9 min read

Beyond bonuses: what motivates Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers

By Hannah Wren

Last updated September 21, 2021

How often do you recognize or reward your team for their work? Unlike our new bot counterparts, humans need to feel valued in the workplace. High performance doesn’t just happen; science shows that it results from a combination of ability and motivation. But what motivates each of us?

Companies tend to place a lot of emphasis on ability and pay good money for talent, but oftentimes, that isn’t going to be enough to keep that talent performing well, or even at your company. And while bonuses might seem like a promising solution to lighting a fire under an unmotivated team, research indicates that throwing cash at your employees isn’t enough to keep them from burning out. So, how do you motivate your team beyond bonuses, especially if bonuses aren’t always an option?

One size does not fit all when it comes to what motivates people at work. According to the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of the U.S. workforce comprises three generations:

  • Millennials (born in 1981-1996)

  • Generation X (born 1965-1980)

  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

Understanding how each generation responds to different motivators can help team leaders develop reward programs that make employees feel valued, inspire high performance, and improve employee retention.

So, how do you motivate your team beyond bonuses, especially if bonuses aren’t always an option?

Stereotypes can be misleading: Motivators for Millennials

Millennials might seem like obsessive selfie-takers who still live with their parents, but they are the generation to watch out for in the workplace. Not only do they have strength in numbers—Millennials are predicted to make up 50 percent of the U.S. labor force by 2020—but they’re dedicated to saving the world from their parents’ mistakes. If you only view Millennials through negative stereotypes, then their top motivators might surprise you.

A team-oriented company culture

Millennials are often referred to as the “me me me” generation. Yet, in PwC’s largest generational study ever conducted, Millennials reported that a team-orientated company culture is a significant part of their happiness at work. Finding innovative ways to foster a supportive environment can effectively motivate this generation.

For instance, Millennials tend to feel particularly motivated by peer-to-peer recognition. Rewards and positive feedback can mean more to them coming from their team, rather than from a supervisor alone. The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) recommends using peer-to-peer recognition apps that allow employees to build points and redeem rewards based on feedback from their coworkers. Since Millennials often value team support, many also want recognition more frequently than other generations, and these apps can help make positive feedback an ongoing part of the office environment.

Millennials also tend to prefer blending their work and personal lives, which underscores the importance of feeling bonded to their teams, according to the IRF research. Team-oriented motivators outside of recognition can include providing off-site events or happy hours where employees can bond with both coworkers and team leaders.

In fact, one reason why B2B sales teams see high employee turnover is because sales reps feel a lack of connection to their team leaders. Robert Wren, who has worked in sales for much of his career and is now President of Primrose Alloys, a global trading company, says that thinking through what motivates his sales team has become especially important since tariffs on Primrose’s main industry, steel and aluminum, has made traditional bonuses harder to grant. “One of the biggest motivators, for all generations on my sales team, but for Millennials in particular, is making Primrose feel like family. On every employee’s birthday, we have a party where we order food from a restaurant of their choice and present a card to them signed by the entire team. We give them a gift card to somewhere we know they’ll love, like a clothing store they always talk about or tickets to see their favorite sports team. It feels more personal than our annual office holiday party.”

Opportunities for growth and development

While Millennials are also often labeled as being entitled and impatient, opportunities for growth and development can be more rewarding for them than instant bonuses. For instance, Millennials report having a strong enthusiasm for yearly education budgets, as well as the opportunity for overseas travel. PwC reported that 37 percent of Millennials want to travel overseas for work, compared to 28 percent of non-millennials. Offering interesting projects that differ from day-to-day responsibilities are another way to offer opportunities for growth and development.

“Millennials tend to have computer-based jobs, so many are motivated by projects that allow them to experience a direct human connection,” said Enver Rahmanov, the volunteer program coordinator at Sutter Care at Home. Since Rahmanov manages a team of volunteers, bonuses are never an option, and he has to think outside the box when it comes to motivating his team. “One way I motivate Millennials is by ensuring that they have an opportunity to grow vocationally and gain the direct experience they are seeking to make future career decisions,” he said.

IRF reports that since many Millennials are seeking opportunities to grow both vocational and personally at work, they tend to be motivated by frequent, detailed feedback, and prefer this to be in person, despite their comfort with technology. However, this does not mean that they want to be micromanaged; instead, they prefer to have a supervisor or other leader to act as a mentor.

Work as thing, not a place

PwC also found that Millennials tend to be results-driven at work, seeing work as a “thing” as opposed to a “place.” This means that they often prioritize output over the number of hours they put in. For this reason, 64 percent of Millennials would like to have the option to work from home, and 66 percent would like to change or have some control [or: agency] over their work hours. Since Millennials are motivated by exposure to new technology, providing them with access to technology that they can use both in the office as well as outside of the workplace and traditional work hours can be an interesting incentive.

Hunting alone: Motivators for Generation X

While Millennials grew up in an era of digital prosperity, Generation X, the next largest generational group at the workplace, witnessed institutional turmoil as children. Many saw their parents lose jobs or take salary cuts. According to the IRF, gen-Xers’ top motivators result from the socioeconomic climate in which they grew up.


Based on their parents’ experiences, Xers tend to be less trusting of employers and value independence at the office. While autonomy is a motivator for all generations, IRF reports that it ranks higher on the motivation scale for Generation X.

“In sales, some people like to hunt alone,” said Wren. “While I base autonomy on talent, rather than age, I’ve found that those in their forties prefer autonomy over coaching, whereas someone in their twenties prefers coaching over autonomy.”

Work-life balance

Since Xers are said to be independent at work, face-time usually isn’t as much a priority as it is for other generations. Experts characterize Xers as “working to live” because they value work-life balance. Unlimited work from home days and a flexible work schedule tend to rank high on their motivation scale. Likewise, time off is often a more appealing motivator for Xers than bonuses.

Private recognition

While recognition is an appealing motivator for all generations, the difference lies in how each generation prefers their praise to be delivered. Xers tend to respond better to recognition in an intimate setting. Managers might try presenting a certificate in front of the smaller team rather than the entire office, or delivering positive feedback during a one-on-one.

[Read also: Nailed it: Customer service quotes to get you motivated]

Game on: Motivators for Baby Boomers

While more Baby Boomers are beginning to retire, they still represent about 25 percent of the labor force, and many are thought of as the “hard-to-replace senior knowledge workers” at the office. Boomers are similar to Millennials when it comes to motivations at work, but also have some interesting preferences of their own.


The IRF points to volunteerism, or making a difference, as a motivator for Boomers. This is one way they are similar to Millennials, as both generations are often enthusiastic about civic engagement.

“Both the Millennials and Baby Boomers on my team are motivated by projects that give back to the community over those that benefit the agency, per se. However, Millennials tend to be really focused on career development opportunities, whereas Baby Boomers often already have a set career path. At this point in their life, Baby Boomers are typically looking for enrichment,” said Rahmanov.

Employers might consider offering sabbatical leaves for enrichment, or opportunities to volunteer their skillset or in the community, as a motivator for Boomers.

[Read also: 3 surprising ways to volunteer your professional skills]

Healthy competition

According to the IRF, Boomers are also motivated by “healthy competition.” The organization advises “setting goals, or challenges within the workplace that the Baby Boomer can ‘win.’” For instance, setting up opportunities for public recognition, such as receiving a certificate in front of the entire office or getting a promotion with a salary boost and title change.

While a politicized company culture can create tension with both Generation X and Millennials, Boomers tend to appreciate a hierarchical work environment as they are said to be highly motivated by advancement in status. They are often willing to work overtime if it means more seniority—and more importantly, the respect that goes with it.

Flextime, but not without face-time

Although flexible work hours are a universal motivator, there is an important caveat when it comes to Boomers. While Boomers want the option for flextime or to work from home, IRF reports that this can also cause them a great deal of stress because they often need more communication, help, or training than Millennials or Xers. Supervisors might present remote work as an option for Boomers, rather than designating set days or times for the entire office to be closed, and ensuring that they are easily reachable when not in the office themselves.

Generational differences as a framework for motivation, not a rule

Generational experts recommend designing motivation programs at work with enough options to account for different generational needs and preferences. But of course, not every person thinks alike or is defined by their generation. “From my experience leading sales teams, I often find that some motivators work better for others based on personality, rather than the time period they grew up in,” said Wren. Still, viewing motivators through a generational lens can be helpful for reducing workplace tension and keeping strong employees performing and happy.

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