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Executive Summary

Has the silver tsunami really hit, or are baby boomers holding on to their jobs for ever-greater lengths, thereby creating a bottleneck in the labor market? Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms the later reality.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, national labor force participation has declined sharply in every sector, hitting its lowest point in 36 years when it stood at 62.8% for July 2016. That decline has been most apparent among workers between the ages of 16 and 24 and among those who are 24-55, who are considered prime-age workers. It is guaranteed that baby boomers will leave the workforce in time, but for the time being, public sector human resources professionals must manage a plethora of older workers and deal with a shortage of younger workers.

Meeting these professional duties requires public sector human resources professionals to have insight into the needs and wants of a multigenerational workforce. Jeanne C. Meister, a founding partner of the consultancy Future Workplace and the co-author of The 2020 Workplace, made this point in a September 25, 2014, Harvard Business Review article titled “Managing People From 5 Generations.” Meister told the article’s author, “Just as you would research a new product or service, you need to study the demographics of your current workforce and the projected demographics of your future workforce to determine what they want out of their jobs as these things are different generation to generation.”

Findings from the International Public Management Association for Human Resources’ 2016 Benchmarking Survey reflect Meister’s call for the necessity of considering “where your employees are in their lives and what their needs are.” This admonition serves as the thesis for this report and drives the exploration of differences in preferences across the three generations currently in the public sector workforce.

The survey asked respondents to indicate their wants, needs and preferences regarding five predominant factors related to working in the public sector:

Key findings follow.

Appeal of Working for Government

Good benefits (53%), job security (49%) and pensions (40%) were cited as being most conducive to motivating respondents to find and keep government employment. Even though government employees sought out work in the public sector for its desirable aspects, just over half (55%) rated government as an employer or institution somewhat favorably.


Friends, colleagues and family members (37%) and public sector organization websites (21%) were named as the predominate ways that public sector employees found their government jobs. The greatest proportion of survey respondents said that the hiring process took two to three months. Those having experience with private sector hiring considered the application process for the public sector far more cumbersome and said opportunities to negotiate salary with their public sector employer were rare.

The recruitment process is definitely an aspect of government employment that needs to be evaluated for improvement. Regardless of generation, survey respondents advised emphasizing the following features to attract employees: long-term retention of employees (17%), a place that offers upward mobility or visibility to showcase skills (16%) and a competitive compensation package (15%).


The top reasons government employees gave for staying at or leaving their job were career advancement and development opportunities, their relationship with their supervisor and compensation. Survey respondents were also asked to gauge the importance of interpersonal work relationships, workforce benefits, workplace resources and infrastructure, and organizational philosophy. An in- depth look at their responses appears in the Workplace Preferences section of this report.

Attitudes About Work in General

Six out of ten (57%) public sector employees share the attitude that work “provides me with an income that is needed.”

Career Advancement

Four out of ten (44%) government employees have the expectation that a reasonable time to work for an organization prior to promotion is 3 to 4 years. A third (35%) characterize themselves as “climbers,” meaning that they are individuals who seek advancement in their organization by asking for varied assignments, working long hours, networking and seeking greater visibility. As for their preference for a career path, the greatest proportions selected the response options of career laddering (35%) and job redesign (30%).

The following table outlines how baby boomers, members of Generation X and millennials view the five factors related to working in the public sector. The characteristics ranked highest by members of each generation are listed.

Objectives & Methodology