It’s no secret that Autumn is a busy time for HR departments across the country. And as we leave summer behind us it’s not just graduates who are entering the job market, but employees across the board who see the new season as a chance to seek new challenges and opportunities.

It’s important for HR directors to take advantage of this. At a time when UK employers are struggling to bridge a growing skills gap, it’s important both to attract millennials to supplement the talent pipeline, and to retain older workers who, with a lifetime of experience and expertise under their belts, are an important asset to any business.

Developing a working environment and reward strategy that is attractive to workers at both ends of this spectrum is an opportunity to be seized, not least because different demographics have very different needs and priorities in the workplace. So how do the benefits valued by employees change throughout their lifetime, and what can organisations do to attract and retain top talent across all age-groups?

Be a caring company

For workers of all ages, a key factor for retention is whether they feel valued by their employer.

In today’s increasingly competitive market, salary is no longer the sole differentiator– less tangible elements such as feeling heard, corporate social responsibility or having inspiring leadership can also be key. For employers, this can be a double-edged sword. While this is good news for smaller start-ups and SMEs, who might not be able to afford to compete with the pay packages offered by much larger competitors, it also means that firms – whatever their size – need to pay closer attention than ever before to what they can offer potential employees outside of financial remuneration.

From company culture and leadership style through to flexible working policies and benefits packages, there are many aspects which should be taken into consideration. For many organisations, however, many of these are still little more than an afterthought. Research recently commissioned by Unum found that a third of workers across all age groups feel they are only ‘adequately or poorly’ cared for by their employer – and more than a fifth felt their levels of wellbeing had got worse in the last three years.

Should employers be concerned by these findings? Across all age groups, roughly a third of employees in the legal, retail, media and advertising, accountancy and IT sectors that we surveyed said they would consider leaving a job due to poor workplace wellbeing. So yes – employers do need to sit up and take notice.

But getting workplace wellbeing, and all that entails, right can be easier said than done – particularly when catering for the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce.

Embrace differences

For different employees – and especially those of differing ages – an attractive and engaging place to work can mean a myriad of different things. There’s seldom a case where a “one size fits all” approach works.

We know that when it comes to age, the workplace of today is more diverse than ever before. For the first time, there are up to five generations working alongside each other – each with their own unique requirements and ideals. As such, organisations need to ensure that the measures they put in place to make their company an attractive place to work can be flexed in response to these very different sets of values.

So what do younger and older workers each look for from their employers?


For younger workers – including graduates who are entering the workforce for the first time – our research found that, compared to the majority of respondents, 18-34-year olds place far greater importance on career opportunities, inspiring senior leadership and feeling part of a team compared to their older counterparts.

For this age group, it’s crucial to establish a culture where progression and development is facilitated and encouraged. A large portion of responsibility must fall to line managers; while senior leaders establish the company culture from the offset, it is line managers who reinforce it. As an HR director, it’s your job to ensure line managers are trained to handle their managees’ development needs – this can be keeping them informed regarding on-the-job training available, regular feedback on performance, engagement in developing business solutions or encouragement to take on developmental project work.

Age can also impact views on employee benefits. Younger workers can often be more interested in slightly ‘softer’ benefits than their older counterparts, such as gym membership or cycle to work schemes, while flexible working is often particularly appealing to new parents who are seeking a degree of flexibility as they return to work following maternity or paternity leave.

Line managers should be equipped to explain the full suite of company benefits on offer. For graduates for whom this may be the first experience of full-time office work, this is particularly important. Many young people will be unaware of the benefits on offer to them or won’t understand what they are and how they benefit from them. This makes it crucial that line managers are educated as to what is available, to whom and any changes driven by legislation.

Older workers

Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the abolition of the Default Retirement Age, combined with factors such as improved healthcare and greater life expectancy, mean that there are now more people over the age of 50 in employment than ever before. The number of people working past retirement age has almost doubled in the last year, and by 2020 a predicted third of workers are expected to be over the age of 50. This trend has been recognised by the Government, which launched its Fuller Working Lives initiative earlier this year, designed to provide employers with practical guidance aimed at putting a stop to people leaving the workforce involuntarily in their 50s and early 60s.

So what should employers offer older workers? Compared to younger workers, support around ill health becomes increasingly important as we get older. 66% of workers over the age of 55 say flexibility and support at work if they fall ill is important to them – and 60% say the same of financial support through ill health. Career progression was far less important than it was for younger workers, as was a company bonus.

Employers need to understand this disparity, and benefits which staff can choose to opt in or out of are a good way to cover all bases. Elective health insurance, for example, can help older workers cover the cost of medical treatment, while there are a number of early intervention measures such as Employee Assistance Programmes which can help employees and employers alike to spot potential health problems early and lower the likelihood of long term absence from work as a result of illness.

Get the benefits balance right

The key way to meet the needs of such different groups of employees is a comprehensive and flexible benefits package that provides the core benefits that are important at any age, whilst also allowing staff to tailor elements to their individual situations and changing needs. This helps them to get the most from their reward package by making sure it is weighted towards benefits they truly value, whatever their age or life stage.

A flexible benefits package should also include financial protection which is valuable at any age, such as Income Protection, Life Cover, Sick Pay Insurance and Private Medical Insurance. Income Protection, for example, provides a back-up plan for the 1 in 10 employees who will go on long-term sick-leave during their working lives. Employers should consider funding a basic level of financial protection and giving employees the option to buy more at the discounted company rate according to their needs.

Communicate effectively

Above all, employers need to bear in mind the importance of clearly and concisely communicating what they offer. Regardless of age, a culture of openness and ongoing communication between staff and line managers is crucial. And whether you’re dealing with graduates who are entering the workplace for the first time, or longer-term workers who may have lost track of the latest changes in legislation or benefits which have become newly available, there is little point investing in good employee benefits if you haven’t clearly explained what staff are entitled to. It’s not enough to talk about benefits in induction packs when staff first start work, employers also need to keep communicating as they progress and pass stages in their lives and careers.

Today’s workforce is increasingly diverse and multi-skilled; and the war for talent is increasingly competitive. To thrive now and in the future, businesses need to attract fresh talent and retain more experienced workers. A flexible approach that at once recognises the key things that are important to us at any age, and also allows room to tailor offerings to the individual needs of staff is the way forward for progressive employers that want to attract, recruit and retain the best people.

Article by Nancy Ames, HR Director at Unum.