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How Do You Make Audit Sexy Again? A Study on Generational Workplace Motivation

During a speech about higher purpose, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg referenced the story of JFK and the janitor. The story is rumored to go something like this: In 1962, President Kennedy visited the NASA space center.

October 06 2020 • 6 min read

How Do You Make Audit Sexy Again? A Study on Generational Workplace Motivation

During a speech about higher purpose, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg referenced the story of JFK and the janitor. The story is rumored to go something like this: In 1962, President Kennedy visited the NASA space center. During his visit, he crossed paths with a janitor. “What are you doing?” he asked. To which the janitor replied, “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” The story’s source is unverified, but the message is clear: a strong sense of purpose is key to workplace motivation and engagement. The subtext is that every job, no matter how big or small, is vital to the collective effort.

The same is true for public accounting firms that want to attract top talent. How can firms generate engagement across teams? The cursor points to generational motivations. While many factors shape our values and worldviews, age is a big one. 

What do we mean by “sexy”? 

In the past, finance careers were regarded as stable and sustainable. But now, firms are struggling to recruit and retain talent. According to the Inside Public Accounting National Benchmarking Report, one in every six firms experiences annual turnover rates of 20% or more. So, what changed? 

For one, the internet makes it easier than ever for employees to seek new opportunities through industry-specific job sites and networking platforms like LinkedIn. Even more so, increasingly younger generations—with different motivations—are making up the workforce. And firms that fail to appeal to modern professionals will lose them to the next employer—or an entirely different industry. 

To answer the question, “how do you make audit sexy again?” we need to look at generational motivations and create workplaces that allow people to go beyond day-to-day tasks and fulfill a higher purpose. 

How does workplace motivation differ between generations? 

For the first time in the modern workplace, five generations are working together under one roof. Albeit, three of those generations (baby boomers, gen X, and millennials) make up 93% of the current U.S. workforce. This presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for employers—especially public accounting firms seeking top talent in an increasingly competitive market. The first step? Organizations need to understand the driving forces that give workers a sense of higher purpose. Let’s take a look at what drives each generation. 

Traditionalists: Born 1925 to 1945

Traditionalists make up the smallest percentage of the U.S. workforce, with only about 2% still working. Dependable, straightforward, and loyal, these workers are primarily motivated by mutual respect, recognition, personal interaction, and bringing value to their organization. They thrive when they feel heard and when their contributions are valued.

Baby Boomers: Born 1946 to 1964

The retiring baby boomer generation currently makes up about 25% of the workforce, with 10,000 reaching retirement age every day. However, this doesn’t mean employers should disregard baby boomers because nearly 65% plan to work past 65. Similar to traditionalists, baby boomers appreciate personal interaction and recognition for their contributions. 

Baby boomers also value flexibility when it comes to working. According to a Harvard Business Review study, 87% of baby boomers said work flexibility is essential. This need for flexibility stems from having responsibilities outside of work, including families and volunteer work. To keep this generation engaged, employers should provide them with flexible work schedules and opportunities, put them in mentor roles, and offer coaching-style feedback. 

Generation X: Born 1965 to 1980

Generation X makes up about 33% of the workforce today. They’re resourceful, independent and entrepreneurial to the extent that they comprise the highest percentage of startup founders at 55%. This boils down to a need for autonomy and freedom when performing their jobs, explains the Project Management Institute

Because their parents often worked long hours, gen Xers spent time alone growing up and saw first-hand the effects of work burnout. To that end, they tend to have an independent spirit and brought more work-life balance into the workplace. Gen X looks for flexibility, autonomy, balance, and fair recognition when it comes to workplace motivation. 

Millennials: Born 1981 to 2000

This tech-savvy generation is currently the largest age group in the U.S. and makes up 35% of the workforce. Unlike traditionalists and baby boomers, who are more likely to subscribe to the idea of “a hard day’s work for a fair day’s pay,” millennials continuously look for ways to grow and develop—even if that means changing jobs more often. According to Gallup, 87% of millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as essential job attributes. 

Furthermore, millennials grew up with technology. As such, they tend to crave efficiency, clear communication, immediate feedback, and the autonomy that comes with living in a virtual world. To keep millennials engaged, companies need to support growth and development—without micromanaging. 

Generation Z: Born 2001 to 2020

A small but rising percentage of workers (currently 5% of the workforce), generation Z will demand greater workplace diversity, individuality, and social responsibility from the companies they work for, according to Deloitte. To attract and retain gen Z, companies will need to use technology to solve complex global challenges and develop leadership programs with a strong focus on diversity

Why generational motivations matter

A 2012 Gallup analysis of more than one million employees discovered a strong correlation between employee engagement and organizational success. The results revealed that businesses “scoring in the top half of employee engagement nearly double their odds of success compared with those in the bottom half.” This goes to show the vital role people play in the success of any organization. In short, firms that adapt to meet generational motivations will see more substantial success than those that don’t. 

To attract and engage top talent, firms must tap into multigenerational workplace motivation. To recap, these are the primary motivations for each generation: 

  • Traditionalists: Respect and stability 
  • Baby boomers: Recognition and flexibility
  • Generation X: Autonomy and work-life balance
  • Millennials: Personal development and autonomy 
  • Generation Z: Purpose and diversity 

Looking at these generational motivations, we see that they go more in-depth than surface-level work perks (like ping pong tables and free draft beer). They get to the core of what makes us human: personal fulfillment and serving a greater purpose. Every generation—regardless of background—wants to feel seen, heard, respected, and supported. This is why Makosi’s Audit Seniors get more than a placement—they get personalized coaching and support every step of the way to succeed personally and professionally. 

Virtual isn’t second-best—it leads the way

COVID-19 forced a rapid turn to virtual-first work. But virtual shouldn’t be a backup plan that firms settle for under pressure. It’s a powerful offering in its own right. If we look at generational workplace motivation, we see that technology plays a role in fulfilling each generation’s needs in different ways. 

For baby boomers, remote work offers new forms of flexibility. For generation X, it provides vast opportunities for entrepreneurship and a sense of autonomy to work independently from anywhere. For millennials, technology offers avenues to develop new skills, processes, and solutions. And for gen Z, it paves the path to discovering a deeper purpose and connecting with a diverse global workforce. 

The bottom line: technology isn’t only about increasing productivity anymore. It’s about equipping teams with the tools they need to succeed in the workplace. In fact, 55% of respondents in a 2018 Harvard Business Review study reported that a company’s technology—including apps and platforms employees use to do their jobs—influenced their decision to accept job offers. In the same study, 51% of employers reported that inadequate technology decreased their ability to retain skilled workers

The next generation of audit

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of workplace motivation. Knowing how to motivate different generations, each with distinct work styles, is crucial to align teams around shared goals. However, it’s challenging for traditional firms to create the revolutionary experience that today’s generations of employees desire.

Enter Makosi: we take the work-life experience to the next level. Every Makosi Audit Senior—regardless of their age—makes up the “next generation” of the audit industry. They’re problem-solvers, forward-thinkers, and goal-achievers with five or more years of education and industry experience. And with our engagement coaching, Makosi candidates get the guidance they need to ask the right questions, stay engaged, and fulfill a higher purpose during their placements. 

It’s more than a job. It’s a life-changing experience that attracts the best and brightest. When you’re ready to engage the next generation of audit, we’re here to help. 

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