There's no single way to motivate a 23-year-old who views work as a hobby and a 45-year-old Type A personality who wants everyone in the company to know about his every accomplishment. These two age groups live in separate worlds.

Yet today's workplace finds the Silent Generation, baby boomers, and Generation Xers and Yers working side by side. Never before has there been such a diverse group in the corporate population — a work force that, at times, spans more than 50 years.

Abbott Laboratories, Chicago, is a regular on the lists of best companies to work for, in part because of its focus on the different generations that comprise its work force — 50,000 employees worldwide. For the youngest, Abbott offers flextime, telecommuting, full tuition reimbursement, and an online mentoring tool. For employees with young children, there's on-site child care at headquarters (and a discount for child care elsewhere), and employees are allowed to take “sick days” to care for an ill child. For employees with older children, there's a Summer Camp Fair and a 'tweens program called Summer of Service. The company's oldest employees (more than 2,000 of whom have more than 25 years with the company) can take part in free Lunch & Learns on financial planning and retirement issues.

There's no question that these programs are having an impact: The company's turnover is less than 7 percent a year.

The Silent Generation (Born Between 1925-1945)

Nearly 16 million Americans age 55 and over, which includes many from the Silent Generation, are either working or seeking work, representing about 21 percent of the work force. In one AARP study of mature workers, 40 percent to 50 percent of those polled said that they would work past retirement age if they were offered flexible schedules, part-time, and temporary employment. They like the idea of re-entering the job market or keeping a foot in the labor pool.

Employees who fall into this group have generally had predictable career paths, working hard for one or two companies and moving up the ladder of success. They are characterized by their dedication to their employer, and as a group are considered to be non-risk-takers and conformers.

For the Silent Generation, the more formal and public the recognition, the better. One company with valued Silent Generation employees, for example, gives out an Extra Mile Award each year to several people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. The winners' names are announced at a company meeting and then are engraved on a plaque that hangs in the lobby. The chosen employees also receive either cash or equity in the company.

Other ways to publicly recognize and motivate the Silent Generation might be to take photographs of top performers as they are being congratulated by the company president and then hang the pictures in the lobby, or to write articles about their achievements for the employee newsletter. Some companies engrave a plaque with the names of employees who have reached 10, 15, 20, or more years of service and display it prominently.

Workers of the Silent Generation are pioneers of the team approach, and they value programs that recognize the contributions and successes of teams. At First Chicago Bank, the Service Products Group Performance Award recognizes high-performing groups of employees each month. The award entails a group outing to the theater, including dinner, as well as a plaque for the group. All winning team members then attend the annual SPG Performance Banquet, at which additional awards are given. It's a program geared to the company's older demographic.

More than any other group, Silent Generation workers value incentives that help them to plan for the future.

Baby Boomers (Born Between 1946-1963)

Baby boomers make up the largest population of today's workers — 76 million strong, accounting for 52 percent of the work force and most mid- and upper-management positions.

This group came of age at a time of economic prosperity in the United States. It is a generation that likes to win, to be in charge, and to make an impact. Having grown up in post-war prosperity, boomers were the focus of society — and, as a result, they can be extremely self-indulgent.

“This is the first generation that hasn't had to live with the notion that what you're trained to do, you do for the rest of you life,” says Marc J. Wallace, founding partner of the Center for Workforce Effectiveness in Northbrook, Ill. They move easily from one career to the next, and from one company to another — which makes retaining them more of a challenge.

Many boomers are well-traveled and have seen and done far more than their parents. They live for new experiences and adventures. With that in mind, a Lexington, Ky.-based company rewarded six buyers from distributorships around the country with a trip to Road Atlanta, a racing school. There, instructed by professional drivers on racing techniques, guests enjoyed a day racing around the 2.5-mile Grand Prix track.

Boomers also like to be pampered. Realizing this, Nordstrom Inc., the Seattle-based department store chain, with many long-term employees in this age group, created the Pacesetter Award for top sales among employees. As a Pacesetter, an employee enjoys a lavish evening of dinner, dancing, and entertainment with a guest. Then, for the following year, the Pacesetter receives a 33 percent discount on all Nordstrom merchandise — 13 percent greater than the standard employee discount.

As many boomers choose to remain in the work force beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, incentives that give them more free time are also highly valued. This might include flextime policies that encourage employees to take time away from the office for outside activities such as being with children and family, attending a conference of choice, or working on a hobby.

Generation X (Born Between 1964-1980)

There are 40 million-plus Gen-X employees, accounting for 26 percent of the work force. This group is fiercely independent, self-directed, and resourceful. They entered the working world in a time of downsizing and cutbacks, and are skeptical of authority and institutions. As a result, their first loyalty is to themselves.

This group seeks a work environment that is exciting, challenging, and meaningful. In the right setting, they can be loyal, committed, focused, and energized, and will give 110 percent to their job.

Opportunities that let these young employees interact with their managers are very motivating to Gen Xers. For example, computer superpower Siemens Nixdorf Information Systems, in Paderborn, Germany, formed a team of 23 young, talented employees — all under age 40 — to advise the company's management on breakthrough technologies, competitive forces, and demographic trends. Being named to this team is a highly valued honor.

Gen Xers are a group that is used to having fun. They are motivated by a free-spirited workplace, whether that's through company sporting activities or fun office events and competitions.

Training is also an effective reward for Gen Xers, who have an endless desire for information and want to add to their skills, especially technology skills. Rosenbluth International, a travel agency headquartered in Philadelphia, sponsors monthly seminars to enrich its employees' personal and professional lives. Topics include handling difficult situations, goal setting, food, fitness, and recycling.

Generation Y (Born Between 1981 and 1995)

Generation Y, also known as the Echo Boomers and the Millennials, is more than 57 million strong — the largest consumer group in the history of the United States. This is a group that wants it all — now.

The Millennials want meaningful work starting from day one of their careers — not after 10 years of working their way up the ladder. Many in this group prefer to work from home. They are willing to take on new challenges and responsibilities, but not at the cost of enjoying life and the relationships they value with friends and family. And if you get them excited about work opportunities to learn, grow, and make a difference, they're going to work longer and harder because they want to, not because they have to. American Express, New York, provides personal development training to appeal to what their Gen Y employees crave.

To motivate them, make them feel valued and appreciated. Do so through feedback, thanks, inclusion, trust, and respect. And don't forget to have fun.

The Different Generations: What Turns Them On?

Silents

  • formal awards, publicly presented
  • honors from peers or employees
  • stock, 401K contributions
  • being valued for their experience (e.g., the opportunity to teach or mentor)
  • long-term service awards

Boomers

  • self-indulgent treats, such as massages or facials, tools or high-tech gadgets
  • adrenaline-pumping experiences such as race-car driving or parasailing
  • time off to spend with their children
  • nostalgic items, such as a Beatles CD collection
  • the chance to attend a conference of their choice

GEN Xers

  • trendy, name-brand merchandise
  • the chance to socialize with their friends and participate in fun activities, such as laser tag or virtual 3-D games
  • time with the boss to discuss learning opportunities or career advancement
  • time off to participate in volunteer activities of their choice
  • opportunities to be a high-tech problem solver

GEN Yers

  • an informal, fun workplace
  • immediate feedback
  • experiential incentives geared to what they like to do