Talent   //   March 30, 2022

Are you a traditionalist or aspirational? A new study says understanding what drives employees may be integral to stemming resignations

The idea of going back into the office makes some people jump for joy. For others, the thought is horrifying. Some people identify themselves by their job, while others simply want to collect a paycheck so they can afford the things that bring them joy.

After two years of the pandemic, as priorities and work styles have shifted, learning what employees value and what motivates them is critical to retaining them.

“It’s all about alignment,” James R. Bailey, a professor of leadership at George Washington University’s School of Business, told WorkLife. “If I know what’s important to you and can put you in a work situation that captures your values, that’s when the best performance occurs. You’re going to work harder and do better and that’s what an organization needs.”

A study published Wednesday by Morning Consult, New Workers, New Normal, aims to help employers categorize their staffers’ values and motivators. It identified five distinct groups of workers in the modern workplace: minimalists, “transactionalists,” “aspirationalists,” traditionalists and “lifestylists.” Understanding what drives them is important since the study found that one quarter (24%) of the 3,500 employed U.S. adults surveyed at the end of January say they plan to leave their current job within the year.

“Employers can’t rely on their past knowledge or demographic makeup of their staff since our values have changed over the last two years,” said Joanna Piacenza, head of industry intelligence at Morning Consult, and the study’s main author, which she exclusively shared with WorkLife. “There isn’t one correct answer for employers, but knowing who your staff is and what drives them will help you create a model for what your work will look like.”

The new workforce

  • At 30%, traditionalists make up the bulk of the workplace. They tend to think of work as a job, not a career, and while they derive satisfaction from it, their job doesn’t define them. Traditionalists have a strong preference for in-person work (74% prefer it), and are happy on the job (76% reported being satisfied). Interestingly, they’re the least likely of the cohorts to leave (20%). Millennials make up the largest part of the cohort, followed by Gen X, Baby Boomers and Gen Z, respectively.
  • Minimalists don’t feel a strong sense of pride or derive meaning from their work. They skew male, and even though they don’t identify themselves through their job, they do feel satisfied by it (78% report being satisfied). A majority of them (81%) worked remotely for some part of the pandemic and strongly prefer it. As a cohort, they feel underpaid, want a better work-life balance and suffer from burnout. They also prefer hybrid or remote work to in-person.
  • Transactionalists feel the least attachment to work. They don’t derive community or meaning from work. They think of it as a quid pro quo. Despite all that, they’re the least likely cohort to leave their current job. They’re frequently hourly workers and less likely to have dependents.
  • Aspirationalists want to work for companies that try to make the world a better place, have strong culture and growth opportunities. The bulk are millennials, followed by Gen X, with a very small proportion of Baby Boomers and Gen Z. They’re also the most likely to look for a new gig, since they place so much importance on getting satisfaction from work — 27% report that they’re looking for a new job this year. They’re in search of optimal work-life balance, salary and flexible hours or location.
  • Lifestylists work to support their personal preferences and hobbies. Flexibility and work-life balance matter almost as much as salary, and they’re ready to leave their current job if a new one presents favorable opportunities in those areas. As a cohort, they almost entirely prefer remote work. And at 62%, they skew female.

Putting it into practice

More than ever, employers who understand what motivates their workforce will be the most successful. But one size does not fit all.

For example, many employers are touting flexibility and hybrid work as a way to attract talent. But the Morning Consult study found that that benefit is only considered a differentiator for Aspirationalists and Lifestylists. Together, they represent just one-third of workers, according to the study. That also leaves out huge swaths of the population that work in hospitality and retail.

“Organizations and managers who are able to tailor the employee experience to their people will be more effective,” said David G. Allen, a professor of leadership and the associate dean for graduate programs at Texas Christian University’s business school. “Employees feeling like their organization cares about them is associated with all kinds of positive outcomes, like satisfaction, engagement, customer service and retention.”