Something To Believe In: Employee Engagement Across the Generations

Some facts and figures for your consideration:

  • 33% of Americans are actively engaged at work
  • 16% are actively disengaged, ergo
  • 51% of employees are not engaged at work, and haven’t been for some time

Workplaces where employees are “highly engaged”:

  • have 59% lower turnover and a 17% increased productivity
  • have 10% growth in customer metrics and 20% increase in sales
  • are 21% more profitable than organizations with low employee engagement

Employee engagement seems like a new and buzzy workplace jargon term, but it’s actually been around since the early 1990’s (which for us GenX-ers still seems like only 10 years ago). With numbers like those above, it’s no wonder why employee engagement has become something of a holy grail for organizations. Leadership launches initiative after initiative, workers roll their eyes and the needle doesn’t move. Engaging a workforce that is comprised of three (or more) generations—each with varying levels of engagement–seems pretty daunting. How do you do it?

Most Engaged: Boomers

According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, Baby Boomers are the most engaged generation at work. But before you start handing out high-fives, they are also the most actively disengaged. Active disengagement means that not only are these folks unhappy at work, but they go out of their way to express that unhappiness through words, attitudes and actions. Why the extremes? One theory is that with the massive changes that organizations have been through due to technology and an influx of younger workers, Boomers are less secure about their future in the workplace. At the same time, they are the least likely group to be seeking new employment (a measure of engagement) as they value stability and security at this late stage of their careers. They’re going to stick around as long as they can.

Least Engaged: Millennials

Oh, those selfish, entitled, job-hopping Millennials. Of course they are the least engaged, you are thinking. However, they also happen to be the least actively disengaged. They may not be happy, but at least they’re not undermining. And truthfully, they kinda have a legit beef: Millennials have the highest unemployment rate (40%) and underemployment rates (51%) of any generation, meaning that if they are fortunate enough to be employed at all, it may be at a job that isn’t helping them move all that far forward in life. Many have one foot out the door: two-thirds of Millennials plan to leave their current organization by 2020, and 25% of those hope to leave within one year.

Stuck In The Middle: Generation X

Among the three major generations, Generation X employee engagement levels fall smack dab in the middle. Yawn.

Pop quiz time: Which generation says they “need to have a sense of purpose or meaning” in their work in order to feel fully engaged?

Answer: Baby Boomers.

And Millennials.

And Generation X.

That’s right. Each generation desires the same outcome—to feel that their work matters and that they are contributing to the greater good. For some, it means working for an organization whose mission is to “make the world a better place”. For many others, it means they want to know that the work they do everyday directly impacts the health and success of their workplace—regardless of industry.

The key to increasing engagement isn’t rolling out yet another short-term employee engagement initiative or internal communications campaign. It’s creating a culture of ownership so employees at all levels can feel confident that their work matters. To do this, organizations need to:

  • Have clearly defined values: values are the principles that guide the decisions and behaviors as an organization delivers on its mission and aspires to its vision. To have any hope of increasing engagement, employees have to be on board with the values and employers’ actions need to align with them.
  • Seek input for strategic planning: while it’s not always possible to have employees at all levels in on the ground floor of strategic planning, leaders can routinely seek feedback on the plan in draft form. Lower level employees can help leaders identify blinds spots, and may be more likely to willingly execute the plan if they have a hand in its creation.
  • Involve employees in departmental goal setting: again, your “boots on the ground” folks are well-positioned to make sure departmental/unit goals are specific and achievable.
  • Align personal outcomes with strategic goals: ideally, individual performance goals should trace all the way up to and align with the goals set forth in the strategic plan.

If your organization is looking to improve employee engagement, get involved in the process. Talk about a sense of purpose and meaning—how about being a part of a culture change (large or small, depending on where your workplace is on the points above) that could improve your company’s bottom line? That’s something to believe in.


  1. Speaking as a baby boomer, I can validate at least that segment. Another well written, thoughtful piece.

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