The great Millennials myth: The secret to motivating young people

Generational difference models aim to predict overriding characteristics, but lack evidence and lead to poor decision-making


There is a great deal of discussion about Millennials, motivation and the future of young people in the workplace. However, much of the discussion is based on myths or misconceptions that are not backed up by research or the real experience in the workplace. Understanding the motivation of individual workers is a far more accurate and useful way for HR to motivate workers. Debunking myths about generational differences provides a useful discussion for improving HR in practise.

What’s new?

The idea that Millennials (and indeed every generation) have uniquely defining characteristics and are fundamentally different was originally popularised by the Strauss-Howe model of generational differences. This model aims to be prophetic in predicting overriding characteristics of past and future generations in a cycle of four different types. Yet it is lacking in evidence.

The Strauss-Howe model may be an interesting way of describing historical generations, but is not a valid psychological theory, nor is it a useful framework for HR. The model is a better description of events that shaped history in the US than a model of explaining behaviour or motivation at work. Times of national crisis do not necessarily translate into personal crisis.

Anyone interested in finding or developing the potential in others must consider the value of any theory, starting with the question: What does this tell me about any particular individual? Upon examination of the categories, the Strauss-Howe theory is really a description of American cultural attitudes and power structures.

This may be an interesting discussion for historians or political scientists but it does nothing to explain individual differences that exist within the population. It tells us absolutely nothing about the talent or motivation of any particular person.

The term Millennial has become so popular that it is often used as shorthand to refer to young workers. But it is a limiting and arbitrary term that does not tell you anything about an individual’s history, ability, motivation or potential at work. HR professionals can consider the following list and decide which factor(s) are the least relevant.

  • Intelligent
  • Honest
  • Resilient to stress
  • Born in 1959
  • High performer in university

A person’s date of birth is not a very useful characteristic in predicting motivation or performance. Whereas characteristics like intelligence, honesty, emotional adjustment and previous achievement are all very useful for HR to understand.

The misinformed discussion surrounding generational differences is problematic for two main reasons. These are:

1. Generic advice. Much of the discussion uses generic HR ideas targeted towards a niche market. This is often a marketing exercise, where ‘Top 10 Management Tips’ gets more attention if the title is changed to ‘Top 10 Tips for Managing Millennials in the Workplace’. Take a few examples from a Forbes article. The suggestions are rather generic and not particularly unique to Millennials. The article ‘7 Surprising Ways to Motivate Millennials’ has tips like “explain the company vision” and “provide education and professional development”. That's fairly good advice when working with people of any age.

2. Perpetuating myths. Second are the more harmful and often untrue statements. They make assertions of fact with little to no supporting evidence. The Forbes article mentioned in the previous point goes on to say Millennials are “notorious job-hoppers who dislike bureaucracy and distrust traditional hierarchies”, without providing any evidence to support the claim. Small surveys that are not representative of the population or specific examples may be used to present generational differences as fact.

The first point is less harmful when the advice is generally good, but can be counter-productive when stereotyping groups of workers makes some members of the group feel alienated or misunderstood. The second point is more harmful because poor information can lead to poor decision-making. However, the appeal of generational differences endures.

Key findings

The real question must be: do we see generational differences in motivation? The short and sweet answer is no.

We used three of the Strauss-Howe generational categories to describe generations. The Baby Boomers were born in the post-war era roughly between 1945 and 1965. The Boomers grew up during a period of relative affluence, high birth rates and the beginning of space exploration.

Generation X was born between 1965 and 1985, and grew up with the rise of mass media and the end of the Cold War.

And the Millennials were born after 1985, grew up with the internet, the rise of international terrorism and digital globalisation.

Motivators can fit into two categories, with three facets in each. Intrinsic motivators are internal and generated by the inherent pleasure the work creates. Extrinsic motivators are external rewards that one gets for doing a job.

Superficially, we do find very minor generational differences in each of the six values. Most of the differences are statistically insignificant, except for Millennials valuing compensation and conditions significantly more than other generations. This finding is contrary to the common belief that younger generations prefer creativity and personal expression above getting a paycheque and job security.

However, when we looked a bit deeper at the results there is another, unsurprising finding. Older people tend to make more money. First, it should be noted that Generation Y has no significant differences in work values from the Baby Boomers, along with no significant difference in income to this sample.

When we consider the combined effect of age and income, income entirely explains the generational differences in values and age becomes insignificant as a factor in predicting motivation. When considering the effect of income the generational/age differences become completely (statistically) insignificant.

From research to reality

The myths surrounding generational differences can be instructive. The major problems with the theory of generational differences are useful to discuss.

One of the constant challenges in psychological research is separating what effects are caused by age, and which could be generational differences. There are five main problems with generational difference myths. Taking apart these myths is helpful for developing best practice in HR.

Poorly-defined definitions. Generations tend to be poorly defined, often with different age ranges used to describe the same generations. Many studies and publications use different age ranges or time periods for generational categories. There is no real overlap in what different authors mean by a ‘Millennial’. Make sure any factor used to predict performance or potential is clearly defined at work. Whether it is a generation, motivation, personality or other factors, the meaning should be precise and clear. For example, hiring or promotion criteria should be clearly defined and properly explained to all the relevant parties.

Age differences are not necessarily generational differences. Generational differences are often confused with age differences. Of course younger people are less experienced, and may be motivated differently than those later in their life. Hire and promote the best people in your workforce or in the labour market irrespective of age. Fairness is an important motivating factor for workers of any age, discrimination is demotivating whether it is based on age, gender, ethnicity or any other characteristic that does not predict potential.

Generational experiences do not always reflect individual experiences. Not everyone within a generation directly participated in an event and some will be detractors. Develop a performance management framework that accounts for important predictors of potential like intelligence, personality, motivation, ability and experience. Do not assume that a person of a particular age automatically has anything in common with someone close to their age.

Marketing contributes to and reinforces generational myths. Advertising heavily influences the discussion about generational differences. Advertisers use generational stereotypes to appeal to the target demographic. Millennials are often seen as social media-obsessed and ‘digital natives’, meaning they grew up with computers, mobile phones and regular use of technology. That doesn’t always mean those skills can translate to business use without some coaching and training. Hire for potential and train the necessary skills.

Developmental differences can affect research results because there are many psychological differences between young adults (late teens and early 20s) that have well-established biological and psychological causes. It naturally takes some time for most people to grow into a role and build up their own competence. For some young workers this comes much earlier than others.

Implications for HR

It should be clear that individual differences are far more useful in the workplace than any sort of ‘generational effect’. This should be taken as a profoundly encouraging fact for anyone interested in hiring, training and employing younger workers.

The upcoming pool of talent is not at an inherent disadvantage, employers just need to know how to select and develop them appropriately. The evidence from research and practice clearly shows that the question is not what motivates Millennials as a group but that it is necessary to understand what motivates individuals in their work. Lazy stereotyping leads to poor decision-making.

Much of the discussion surrounding the myths of generational differences is incorrect or uninformed, based on stereotypes instead of evidence. Overall the evidence clearly shows there are little to no actual generational differences, and any generational differences have a much greater variation within any particular generation than between generations.

Ian Macrae is director of High Potential, a consultancy providing customised psychological tests and reports for improving performance, predicting potential and developing people