There was a time not so long ago when company loyalty was everything. The Traditionalist generation, now over 78 years old to centennials, often expected to stay with the same company their entire lives. In contrast, Millennials and Gen Z have been branded with a reputation for a feckless lack of loyalty, leaving an employer as quickly as they were hired. But is this really the case?
In a workplace spanning from traditionalists to Generation Z, understanding employee loyalty becomes a complex yet crucial task.
Different generations perceive and demonstrate loyalty in distinct ways, each with unique motivations, expectations, and preferences.
We seek to pull back the curtain on what defines different generations brand loyalty, from the steadfastness of Boomers to the purpose-driven Gen Zs. By comparing the four major generations that make up the workforce, we will explore the evolution of loyalty and what influences it.
This understanding will help you build strategies to increase employee loyalty and employee retention across generations. Dive in with us as we bridge the generational gap and illuminate the multifaceted nature of employee loyalty in today's diverse workforce.
Traditionalists: Setting the Stage
Most of our concepts of the working world come from the Traditionalist generation, now 78 and older. Before you write them off, remember that with the quality of healthcare, today, many 80+ "seniors" are still active in businesses, boards, and councils.
Even the current president of the United Stated is over 80 years old, so these members of the workforce still represent an influential - if dwindling - portion of the workforce.
Long-Term Loyalty and Bootstrap Dreams
Traditionalists typically expected to stay with a company their entire lives. Their dream career was one in which they started as a child sweeping up and rose to the top, a CEO or board director by retirement. But some were fine pulling the same lever (mostly figuratively) for many decades of loyal service. Employee loyalty was considered a personal strength, and many would be relocated by their company rather than change jobs.
Traditionalists have a strong relationship with authority. They like rules and like to see them followed. They like knowing there's a solid hierarchy and dreamed of climbing the ladder, whether or not they did.
Baby Boomer Team Loyalty
Baby boomers were defined by the surplus that occurred after the nation recovered from WWII. They believe in the system, but overall are a democratic group and their employee loyalty occurs on a smaller scale.
Baby boomers as a general body of work (and they were the largest for a longtime) tend to be loyal to their teams. Boomers are loyal to their team, and typically loathe to be seen as the one who's letting the team down. Long hours and time spent away from home were justified by doing their part and putting in the work.
Team Loyalty and Stability
Boomers are well known for displaying long-term employee loyalty with dreams of promotion but, like their Traditionalist parents, they often accepted little to no professional movement for many years in trade for stability. They seek fulfillment by being part of a team that they feel close to, but may lose company loyalty if their team is broken up or the sense of camaraderie is lost.
Apart from loyalty to leadership, boomers tend to prefer a more flat authority system with democratic decision-making. Boomers typically bring items of discussion and are eager to show their capability through performance as part of the team.
Boomers enjoy the stability of a well-structured organisation and are cautious about change, but also acknowledge that sometimes old rules need to be challenges to see improvement.
Generation X Breaks the Rules
Gen X or "Xers" are known to be a more chaotic generation that defined trendy rebellion in their day. They are known for their cynicism but have the strongest trends for commercial brand loyalty. Xers are a driven and typically competitive generation defined by the rat-race 80s business mentality.
They value competence and skills, with high expectations and a desire to be respected for their skills while requiring others to have skills to earn their respect.
Loyalty to Good Managers
Generation X loyalty is often defined as loyalty to a manager or department head. They see their team success as stemming from the skill and capability of a leader they respect, and will often stay at a company for as long as they can work for their favoured manager.
However, just as Boomer employee loyalty may fall apart with the splitting of a team, Gen X loyalty often disintegrates if their favourite manager is removed. Whether they were promoted, fired, or relocated, Xers often lose their sense of dedication when the manager they were dedicated to is gone.
Now mostly over the age of 45 with many Boomers retiring, Xers are seen as the managerial powerhouse and hold many leadership positions and may expect similar loyalty from younger generations.
Change is an Opportunity
Generation X were rule-breakers, once. They saw the inflexible rules of the previous generations as stagnant and came to view change as an opportunity. They are ready to re-evaluate old rules, but now that they have become "The Man", willingness to see their own rules changed varies from person to person.
Millennials Seek Purpose
Millennials were the first generation to be branded as completely free of employee loyalty to a company, but this isn't actually true. Millennials have long been accused of being job-hopping opportunists, but they are defined by seeing the 2008 recession in their teens and young adult years.
Millennials have been shaped by watching their Boomer and Xer parents burn out on too much company loyalty and they have a deeper understanding of how work and life are inherently connected.
Millennials aren't disloyal, they are anti-toxicity. They don't want to be worked to the bone (without their consent), and they won't tolerate abuse, bias, mistreatment, or the mistreatment of their colleagues.
Loyalty is strongest to their co workers, so much that simultaneous walk-outs are common. When a toxic work environment breaks the first person, often their colleagues will leave with them as an act of solidarity and a show of force against bad leadership. However, Millennials are also seeking their "dream job", one in which they will feel truly at home and able to give their all.
This has led to a simple demand: That companies show mutual respect and loyalty in return.
Loyalty is a Two-Way Street
For Millennials, employee loyalty is something that companies must earn. But once they earn it, results have shown that Gen Y workers will give their all to the point of poor health and burnout. To achieve this energetic outpouring of energy, employers must be willing to meet three factors:
Millennials don't want to be stuck in the same job forever, so they seek opportunities to grow and reach their career goals from any long-term employer. Employers who step up, fulfilling all three requirements, will see just how far millennial workers will go down that two-way street.
Millennials also show greater employee loyalty to authority figures to come through for them, displaying skillful leadership and showing that they genuinely care by standing up for the team.
Generation Z currently makes up the youngest members of our workforce, as the oldest are now in their mid-twenties.
This has not created many years of data on their behavior in the workforce, but as the most immersed digital natives in history, a few conclusions can already be drawn.
A World of Constant Change
Young Gen Z workers seek experiences. Young people care about their careers with surprising strength and passionately seek opportunities to grow. They process and follow directions, but the seek employee engagement and understanding over simple adherence to a hierarchy. Gen Z also understand that the world is moving rapidly, and expect change to be a constant.
They are agile, mobile, social, and expect the workforce to adapt to the reality they have grown up in. This includes remote work, great benefits, and to become a part of their company's success.
Gen Zs expect to be part of the conversation. When given a direction, they may ask why and how. They prefer balanced rules, but expect those rules to change with a constantly shifting digital and social landscape so that balance is maintained through adaptivity, not stasis.
Unforeseen Pandemic Impact
As we move forward, it's also important to note that younger Gen Zs were profoundly impacted by the Pandemic lockdowns, spending two years of schooling isolated and communicating remotely.
It is not clear how this will impact the workforce priorities of the generation in the future, but just as the 2008 recession defined Millennial values, there will surely be a result.
Crafting an Employee Loyalty Plan for Every Generation
How each generation approaches employee loyalty clearly evolves from one generation to the next. Traditionalists are loyal to the company, Boomers to the Team, Xers to their favourite manager, Millennials to their co workers, and Gen Zs (so far) are in it for the experience.
The biggest trend is that each progressively younger generation values change as increasingly important, from seeing change as good (Xers) to seeing change as a necessary constant (Gen Z)s.
However, to nurture and increase employee loyalty across the generations, it becomes clear that building a positive workplace culture with tightly-knit teams is always the answer. Business success depends on bringing these styles of employee satisfaction, mutual respect, and well being together.
The true challenge lies in providing strong leadership that inspires loyalty, as leaders will need to adapt to a range of expected authority and communication models from one generation to the next.
Building employee loyalty among millennials and Gen Zs will also require a dedication to creating a truly fulfilling and growth-oriented employment model where each employee can see their full career realised without having to seek new roles outside the company.