What Really Motivates Young People?

Posted by: The Coaching Academy In: Coaching Articles

When consultant Cam Marston first warned HR people that the ‘generation gap’ threatened to become a chasm into which good but misguided intentions and company profits could tumble, they said the idea was ‘cute’ but took no action. Guess who’s sorry now?

Twelve years have passed since Cam Marston, a consultant who specialises in multigenerational communications and marketing, told an assembled group of HR professionals that a generation gap of mammoth proportions was looming. Since then as the cracks have begun to show in offices across the developed world, tens of thousands have flocked to his seminars and snapped up his book Motivating the “What’s In It For Me?” Workforce (Wiley, 2007), anxious for someone to explain what the heck is going on!

Those HR professionals who once chuckled at the idea are now on the phone daily, begging Marston and others like him to help deal with the chaos caused by managers with one set of values and expectations and two generations of employees with completely different values – the recruitment headaches, the low staff morale, the retention problems, as well as the increasingly perplexed management who just don’t understand what makes those young people tick.

The key to motivating young employees is to understand they have very different values from people in preceding generations, says Marston.
He believes the ‘Generation X-ers’ (people aged between 28 and 42) and the ‘Millennials’ (people aged 27 or under) have rejected the traditional workplace values that so inspired the ‘Matures’ (people aged 62 or over) and the ‘Baby Boomers’ (people aged between 43 and 61). Younger workers are less loyal to their organisations and more possessive of their free time.
Time-honoured traditions don’t interest Millennials and Generation X-ers, says Marston. ‘Their definitions of loyalty, time and success are often quite different from those of the Baby Boom generation. They are unconcerned about how things have always been done. They don’t care how their managers got where they are. They are focused, often single-mindedly, on what it will take to get where they want to go.’

The Matures (who make up about 5% of the workplace) and the Baby Boomers (about 45% of the workplace) invested in the concept that if they worked hard, they would climb the corporate ladder, and eventually earn rank and privileges (‘perks’). The Generation X-ers and the Millennials don’t share that same definition of success and therefore present a challenge to those now in ‘control’ – the Baby Boomers in management.

‘The younger generations view their predecessors’ experience as a warning, not a road map. And the traditional rules of management, motivation and reward fly out the window.

‘Many employers say that this is precisely what they’re seeing. They describe how this simple change in philosophy is having enormous repercussions in the way they manage, motivate, recruit, and retain employees. To remain competitive in their workplace they have to change everything from how they communicate with employees to the reward systems used to motivate them.

‘The key to an organisation’s future success is understanding how the Millennials view the world and using that knowledge to motivate them in a way that works. Here’s a hint: meet them where they are and they will achieve your underlying goals; try to force them to fit your definitions and they will run for the door every time.’


‘Younger generations have a self-centred work ethic,’ says Marston. This is not necessarily a bad thing: Millennials are dedicated to completing their task well. They haven’t been raised in a way that demands them to look around and see what should be done next. Instead, they ask, “What is my job?” and go about figuring the best, fastest way to complete that task. Then they consider themselves done.

‘The younger they are, the more they view their jobs as “something to do between the weekends”. For most, early employment has nothing to do with a career path; it is a way to earn money to have fun in their free time. These generations demand work-life balance and paid time off. They want to get the job done, then put it behind them and enjoy life.

‘And that is okay. When you understand what motivates your employees you are better able to set mutual expectations for success. Instead of being frustrated that your youngest employees are not interested in climbing your corporate ladder, embrace their true motivation – reliable spending money – and use it to your advantage. When you tell an employee, “I understand this is not your lifelong career, but to earn your wage every week, here is what I expect …” they are much more likely to respond than if you try to motivate with promises of promotions and titles down the road.

‘Understanding that being at the job isn’t as important to Millennials as completing the assigned task also opens up new opportunities for motivation and reward. Younger employees are very likely to respond to offers of paid time off.’

He gives the example of an organisation that rewards employees with an on the spot ‘Working Hard Card’ which is redeemable for a set amount of paid time-off. ‘It’s a simple strategy that rewards employees in the currency they value most – their time.’

How To Inspire Loyalty
Contrary to some expectations, young people do have great respect for leaders, says Marston. ‘For the younger generations, every ounce of loyalty and respect must be earned. But when it is earned, it is given fiercely. In fact, loyalty to the individual is the number one reason X-ers and Millennials stay in the job, especially during the first three, tenuous years. Dissatisfaction with the boss is the number one reason they quit. So in order to increase retention, managers must take a flipped view on leadership – it is no longer enough to hire the right people and show them the way, now you must BE the right person to win their affection. Sounds a little touchy-feely for the workforce, yet the faster leaders understand this new relationship, the sooner they will see the reward in the way of increased retention.

‘Workers in their twenties are typically inspired by two things: they become loyal to their boss and they search for bosses who can help them achieve their goals. In other words, the 20 year old says, “I want to be a ________ and my career should include ________. Who’s going to help me get there?” When they find the bosses that can answer the question, they become very loyal and work very hard for that individual.

‘The manager needs to change from being a ‘boss’ to an advocate. The boss manager says, “Do it this way?” The advocate says, “How are you doing? What more do you need from me? What do you need to get the job done?” Those things combined will make the 20 year olds in the workforce say, “I like him. I enjoy doing work here.” There will be greater employee engagement if they notice that attitude – advocate versus boss.

‘The 20 year olds in the workplace have a loyalty to the social aspect of the workplace. They are loyal to their peers, to the network of friends they have created. They are a very social generation. Employers need to facilitate this networking or peer activity in the 20 year olds so that they can create loyalty amongst one another.’

To keep Millennials motivated, employers need to create very short-term goals for them. ‘Millennials live in a timeframe based on right now. Their world has proven that nothing is a guarantee – from nationwide layoffs to war to soaring divorce rates, they have decided that there’s not a lot you can count on. As a result, they are not interested in promotion plans for five years from now. They don’t even want to know what will happen at the end of the summer. Life is uncertain. To reach the Millennial employee and reduce turnover, make it certain. Tell your employee that you have a plan. Take pains to ensure it is in a timeframe short enough for them to envision. They should be six-week or six-month goals not one-year, two-year, or five-year goals. You need to give them some sort of engagement in the destination. Whether it’s a customer service mission, a sales mission, an altruistic mission – you say “Here’s what your mission is, here’s what will help us achieve this mission and this is the way it will play out on a day-to-day basis.” Be prepared to fulfil your promise – once fooled, forever jaded. This approach feeds into their reality, while simultaneously building trust and buying you more time. Reward small successes along the way, string these milestones together and you will soon realise longer tenures among your staff.’

The Generation X-ers are a more autonomous workforce, says Marston. ‘They want to be given a project, an assignment and a deadline and left alone. They are nomadic in their behaviour. They choose not to engage as much – that’s the bulk of Generation X between 30 and 40 right now.’ Generation X-ers tend to be cynical and sceptical about authority and will expect things to be proved to them. ‘They are loyal to people who pass the “Prove it to me” test. “Do you say what you do? Do you do what you say?” They have their own destination or goal in mind – “This is what I am going to do and this is how I am going to get there.” They find people who they can count on and they stay close but they are more nomadic, more autonomous. They prefer being given a list of ‘To-Do’s and they will do it in their own time.’

To motivate someone in this bracket, it’s best to offer a reward of paid time-off, says Marston. ‘Time is the currency that seems to be the most appealing to this generation.’


There’s a prevailing fear among managers that if they give in to the demands of their younger workforce things could all go horribly wrong, says Marston. ‘It’s the biggest barrier to change. However, I have never set foot into a workplace where they have not seen an instant benefit from making changes. Managers have to get over that fear.’

There is also the fear that if management make the changes that Generation X-ers and Millennials want, it will create ill-feeling among the older generations of workers who have turned up on time for 20 years or more and who have always been reliable. ‘That is a very real fear – however the options are few. You can dig in and say, “We’re not going to make these changes – we’re going to find people to fit our profile” but you will find you have to search very hard to find those people.

‘The other option is to employ an immigrant workforce which is very possible and very real.’

Companies who decide to make changes need to communicate the need for change to the entire workforce. ‘They must have the conversation about this generational change and they need some evidence to back it up. Typically, the senior workforce agrees. “Yes there is a big change. We don’t like it but it is very real. It is here. Therefore, we’re willing to make the change. It may be unfair, it may be that this next generation is having it much easier… if we make this change, it will get easier on us all.” So, what the manager must do is become versed in why these changes are necessary. They don’t need to become generational experts – they just need to become clear on what’s happening and why it has happened, how it is impacting us and here are the changes we need to make so that it is better for all of us.’

And in doing so, they can bridge that generational gap.

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