Back in the day, the typical workforce model looked like this: A young worker did their best to make a good impression and get their foot in the door at a large company. They worked their way up the ladder – often working extra hours to prove their worth – and if they were lucky, they stayed employed with that organization for decades. In exchange for their loyalty, workers received a decent salary that grew a few percentage points each year and basic benefits, with the most fortunate enjoyed yearly bonuses and a pension upon retirement.

But things, of course, couldn't be more different today. Here's a look back at some of the key trends that have changed the way we work over the years, and shaped today's employee expectations.

The 401(k)

The growth in popularity of the 401(k) in the 1980s and 1990s put the onus on the employee to plan for their own retirement. Because employees had a way to save for their retirement using pre-tax dollars and, in many cases, an employer match on part of that investment, pension opportunities were gradually phased out. According to one study,[1] only 14% of Fortune 500 companies offered pension plans (traditional or hybrid) in 2019 to new hires. This number is down from 59% among the same employers from 1998 data. As such, the main incentive for staying on with one employer long-term is no more.

The Technology Boom

The rise of smart devices in the early 2000s turned work into an always-on, 24/7 experience, resulting in unrealistic employer expectations, and in turn, employee burnout.

But this culture also brought with trends like workday perks[2] (afternoon yoga, anyone?) and on-site amenities (i.e. free catered cuisine and ping pong tourneys) that became synonymous with Silicon Valley tech companies.

Employer as a Brand and Workplace Culture

Younger generations begin to view work as not only an opportunity to earn income, but to contribute to something they are passionate about while developing their own skills and talents. As such, employers begin to recognize that honing their employer brand and selling their workplace culture is vital in order to attract the best talent. They also have to work harder to retain employees, and the most successful ones try to do so by offering perks, benefits, and a focus on employee engagement and development.

Industry Disruptors and The Gig Economy

The 2010s have really ushered in an era of innovation, side hustles, freelance opportunities, self-employment and entrepreneurial endeavors. From app-based platforms like Lyft and Uber to independent contract work, Upwork research[3] indicates that 36% of the American workforce performed freelance work in 2020. And, for those who left full-time work to freelance, 3 out of 4 say they earn the same or more as freelancers. This has also made it more common for companies to utilize a mixed workforce of full-time workers, temporary staffers, and freelance contractors/consultants hired for special projects.

The COVID Impact

It's likely that the 2020-2021 COVID-19 global pandemic will have a ripple effect on the world of work for years to come. Because of forced shutdowns, the company cultures that employers worked so hard to curate were stripped away, as workers began working from home. The concept of "essential workers" became part of our lexicon. Some savvy companies were able to adapt, offering better healthcare packages to accommodate the global health crisis, as well as mental health support, and remote team-building programs, while others chose to ride it out and continue their traditional operations.

The Post-Pandemic Workforce

Can things ever really go back to the way they were before the pandemic? That's what employers and employees are grappling with now. COVID not only had a public health impact, but it reframed the way we think about work. On an individual level, it put priorities in perspective. On the economics side, it has also resulted in a labor shortage[4] in many industries. What's more, with the realization that remote or hybrid work can be just as productive (if not more so) than full-time in person, employees are showing resistance in going back to their offices. One survey had 43% of respondents[5] questioning if they should even go back to the office at all. Employers will likely have to accommodate some of these new employee expectations in order to forge forward. At the same time, there's also an opportunity to reimagine the employer/employee relationship and make improvements, as well as reach new virtual talent pools.

What Today's Workers Want

Now that you've had a look back at some of the key historical moments that have shaped today's employee mindset, here are the key things that workers want from their employers:

  • Demonstration of values that align with theirs. Workers have become more selective about finding the right cultural fit for them, and this often includes reflecting on core values. In fact, according to research by Deloitte[6], “mission-driven” companies have 40% higher levels of retention.
  • A respectful and inclusive workplace. From the first touch points during the recruiting and hiring process, it's important that candidates feel welcome and that they have a voice. In fact, according to a global survey by Monster,[7] 86% of candidates globally said diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace is important to them.
  • Competitive compensation, but also, a career path. Money is important, but today's workers are also future-minded. LinkedIn research[8] reveals that right behind salary (45%), the second most popular reason for switching jobs is more growth opportunities (37%).
  • Flexibility. It may be time for employers to rethink the traditional work week. In an Adecco survey,[9] 69% of workers said employer should focus on results rather than hours worked. And many companies have announced plans to continue offering hybrid/remote work for some roles.

Looking back at how the world of work has evolved and keeping up with the times is one of the most effective ways for employers to gain a competitive edge and attract the best talent. If you're looking for a cheat-sheet to navigate employee expectations, just remember this:

  1. Be transparent about what makes your company culture unique and highlight your workplace as an inclusive and supportive place that cares about work life balance.
  2. Put together a great employer value proposition (aka, what's in it for the candidates). This should include a competitive salary, benefits, and perks.

With a strong combination of company values and an attractive compensation package, you'll be in great shape to hire the next generation of workers.