Navigate Generational Attitudes on Health Benefits

During open enrollment, be mindful of age-based differences

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Oct 6, 2014
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With four generations working side by side in the labor force—Millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists—employers are challenged during open enrollment season to meet each group’s distinctive needs and expectations. These differences become especially relevant when honing ways to communicate health care options.

Millennials Embrace Technology

Millennials (born after 1980) see themselves as invincible, thanks to their youth and good health, according to an October 2014 analysis by HR consultancy Mercer, Four Generations at Work. They may need to be reminded of the importance of health insurance.

“They’re more drawn to higher-deductible plans because they expect to rarely need health care and they can keep more of their paychecks,” said Tracy Watts, senior partner and Mercer’s U.S. leader for health care reform.

“Employers can help themselves and the young talent they employ by better communicating the perks of the Affordable Care Act,” Watts said. “For one, young people can stay on their parents’ health care plan until age 26, even if they have an offer of coverage through their employer.”

Millennials also tend to be more fluent and comfortable shopping online, and will “be looking to online health insurance enrollment platforms to allow them to compare prices, benefits and performance of plans to decide which affordable option is right for them,” Watts noted. “When it comes to researching and choosing health benefits, they’re ready to be set loose, as long as they’re given access to the right information and decision tools.”

Generation X Seeks Flexibility

Generation X (born 1965-1980) employees often are starting families while saving for the future. Employers can help by providing a flexible health benefits platform that includes options to meet their diverse needs for child care, elder care, and the employees’ own physical and mental health, the analysis advises. Employers can also simplify health care benefit options and offer more decision-making support.

“Too many health insurance choices can impair, not help, decision-making,” said Kimberly Seals, a Mercer senior partner and global leader of Mercer’s talent technology. During open enrollment, “there’s no reason employees or their spouse or partner should be sifting through stacks of papers and receipts from the past year, just to make a decision about their health benefits. Make those documents available electronically, and proactively offer sound suggestions for plan enrollment based on their health care usage over the past year.”

Baby Boomers Have Options

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), who are the primary caregivers of their parents and children, are more likely to report health problems, thus accruing higher health care costs, the analysis notes.

“With the shift toward more individual accountability for managing one’s health care decisions and expenses, Baby Boomers would benefit from education on selecting appropriate medical plans, taking advantage of voluntary benefits, and maximizing health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts to better plan for medical expenses while also realizing tax savings,” said Watts.

But this new era of accountability also is providing some health care perks for Baby Boomers, specifically the Affordable Care Act’s removal of lifetime maximum benefits on medical plans. “There were people working in jobs because the benefits were good, whereas if they went somewhere else they might have limits on their benefit coverage,” Watts said. “This gives them more freedom and flexibility.”

Traditionalists Adjust to New Era

Traditionalists (born 1925-1945)are concerned about maintaining their health so when they are finally able and want to retire, they can enjoy it.

“A growing number of people who were born in the later part of this generation, who are now in their 70s, are still working today because they find it mentally stimulating, while others simply cannot afford to retire,” said Orlando Ashford, president of the talent business at Mercer. He noted that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that this generation will comprise 3 percent of the total workforce in 2015—a small yet significant percentage.

Traditionalists came of age with cradle-to-grave benefits that may no longer exist, the analysis states. While some experts argue that the new era of increased financial responsibility for medical care and retirement might be too challenging for Traditionalists to adapt to, Ashford said not to discredit the workers’ ability to catch on.

“There’s some risk there, but as with any type of change, there’s an opportunity for education,” he said. “It will be harder for Traditionalists to adjust to a new way of managing their health care, their retirement and their career at this stage in the game, but it can be done. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to educate and motivate them to do it.”

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM. Follow him on Twitter @SHRMsmiller.

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