At the 2023 Farm Equipment Dealership Minds Summit, I had the opportunity to sit in on a roundtable discussion about sales compensation. One topic I heard from many participants was frustration with the younger generation’s focus on work/life balance. There was concern among some that the opportunity to make money by working harder was no longer a motivator for many young sales professionals. Some salespeople, it seems, were happy making only a certain amount of money if it meant they could leave early on a Friday and have weekends off. 

I immediately suspected this flew in the face of the agriculture work ethic many attendees likely had, having been raised on or around farms and the farmers who were up early, worked late, rested seldom and saw little need for diversion because every day was spent doing something they loved.

I did not grow up in agriculture, but I understand the work ethic. My dad is a city boy who comes from a long line of blue-collar people that lugged and lifted their entire lives — often at 2 jobs. I’m the first one on either side of the family to get a college degree, but even though I work in an office, I know the value of consistently showing up, being on time, doing what you say you’re going to do and accepting additional responsibilities without complaint. In high school, I worked a part-time job where I found out that my colleagues secretly called me “OK Aiello” because no matter what they asked me to do, I would say, “OK,” and get it done. It’s how I was raised.

Nonetheless, times are different. Those of us who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s — technically part of Generation X — gained an appreciation from our Baby Boomer parents of their ability (both dad and mom) to “grind it out” in jobs predominantly outside the home.

An article published by Johns Hopkins University, “The Changing Generational Values,” says that Gen X did in fact find and prioritize work-life balance, but it is still “operating under a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality.” We remember our Baby Boomer parents and, as the article says, their penchant for being “work-centric and workaholic, independent and self-assertive, goal-oriented and career-focused, competitive, and self-actualized.” We Gen X-ers, however, chose to do away with the “work-centric” mentality while still retaining an appreciation for the value of hard work. 

Our children, however, are a different story. Generation Y (Millennials) — which the Johns Hopkins article says make up about 35% of our workforce (with about 33% being Gen X-ers like me and 25% being Baby Boomers) — came up during an era that was unique in its technological innovation. They were also old enough to understand the horror of 9/11 and came to appreciate the benefits of work-life balance. Thus, the article says, this “resulted in a highly progressive, empathetic generation that was the first to integrate moral values into the workplace: striving to only work in environments that aligned with their core socio-political values, even at the cost of a pay-cut.” Their mindset can be described as “work hard, play harder, but try to only work where you can see yourself play.”

If the Millennials mindset currently poses a motivational challenge in the workplace, wait until you see Generation Z (you might already be seeing them). The Johns Hopkins piece says “retaining Gen Z in the workplace presents even greater difficulty than retaining Millennials. Taking the previous generation’s prioritization of working at companies with similar socio-political values a step further, Gen Z has no problem leaving a company or business that contrasts with their beliefs. Moreover, Gen Z is the generation with the least regard for salary, often placing workplace values over competitive pay.”

So how do we motivate these generations that are so different from our own? I got to thinking about my own children, 1 of which is Gen Y with the other 2 being Gen Z. My wife and I have always encouraged them to do what will make them happy, and for the most part, they’ve done that. Gen Y daughter was until recently self-employed, but took a job when it became necessary. Gen Z daughter is a nanny. Gen Z son just graduated from the University of Wisconsin and is working the job that helped put him through college until the right opportunity for him and his degree comes around. 

All of them work for the money (Gen Z son and daughter have no traditional employee benefits at the moment but seem comfortable living without them), but they play harder than either my wife or I ever did. There are many vacations, and few if any within driving distance. Gen Z daughter, for instance, took her first international trip last year — to Australia — all by herself. My wife and I still get nervous twitches when we think about it, but she went there and came home safely. My kids are different from my wife and I, too, in that they’re currently all single and childless, which affords them more freedom than we had at their ages when we were instead raising them.

Making their adventures a reality, though, does require a certain amount of hard work. So we’ve encouraged them to make goals and put in the work to achieve those goals. And I think that’s what’s going to have to change when it comes to motivating employees of their generations. It’s going to require more than just offering a one-size-fits-all salary and benefits package based on job title and responsibilities. Our generation is going to have to take time to get to know what the younger generation really wants out of life, and we’re going to have to find ways to offer carrots that will help our employees reach those goals. 

Maybe they’re looking to take a 2-week European vacation, for instance, in which case we might have to work with them to help them earn (and save) the money necessary for the trip. Perhaps they really want to earn a certain college degree, which will mean giving them opportunities to raise the necessary funds and find the time to do well. Do they need a downpayment on a house? How much and by what date? And what can we do to help them reach those financial goals?

That’s the question we’ll have to start asking ourselves: what can we do to help? 

Make no mistake — I’m not talking about providing handouts. Instead, I’m suggesting we consider customizing compensation packages to the specific employee that will help them achieve their goals while still ensuring business success. Perhaps it’s a unique bonus structure. Maybe it’s flexible scheduling.

At the Dealership Minds Summit, Federico Lamas, vice president and sales manager for Virginia Tractor, said in a panel discussion on compensation plans that he customizes compensation to the employee. “I create custom-fitted pay plans for all new hires,” he says. “Not all salespeople are created equal. That's why I don't have cookie-cutter approaches.” He adds that he considers experience and talent, but also gets input from the employee. “You have to know what makes that person tick. And you have to identify that when you're sitting with them in that short period of time [during the interview], and you'll learn more as you get to know these folks after you hire them.

One thing is for sure — it’s going to require more dialogue with employees than we’ve likely had in the past as well as more creative conversations with leadership. But ultimately, by focusing on the employee as a person, I believe it’s possible to create a new kind of loyalty that comes from mutual respect — one that will continue to yield dividends for employee and employer alike for years to come.

Have you customized a compensation plan for an employee? I’d like to hear from you. Email me at and tell me your story.