Millennials Aren’t More Motivated By “Purpose” Than The Rest Of Us

Generational differences don’t matter; everyone wants meaningful work. Experts explain why the way we think about motivation is all wrong.

Millennials Aren’t More Motivated By “Purpose” Than The Rest Of Us
[Photo: Flickr user WOCinTech Chat]

Millennials are a demanding bunch, or so it would seem. Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey reports that, if it were up to them, the cohort “would place far greater emphasis than current leaders on ‘employee wellbeing’ and ‘employee growth and development.’ They would be less focused on ‘personal income/reward’ or ‘short-term financial goals.’” That missing sense of meaning and opportunity appears to be lacking so grievously that, as Deloitte researchers put it, “Millennials have one foot out the door” of their current employers.


This finding is no outlier. Deloitte discovered much the same thing last year and the year before that and the year before that. It would seem that ever since there have been millennials in the workforce, they’ve been hungering for more purposeful work. Gallup’s long-running survey on employee engagement finds millennials to be the generation “least engaged” with their jobs, with just 31% reporting themselves sufficiently engaged.

And “ping-pong tables and espresso machines” won’t change that, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton recently warned the Society for Human Resource Management (invoking a cliche of a cliche). Employers, in his view–and in the views, more or less, of Deloitte, PwC, and the Center for Generational Kinetics–need to think bigger. Trying merely to boost millennials’ job “satisfaction,” Clifton said, “is condescending. They want a higher purpose and want to know what they can become.”

But really, who doesn’t?

Why We Know Millennials Less Than We Think

That’s no rhetorical question. But before trying to answer it, let’s get a few of things out of the way: First, it’s true that employee turnover is high and expected to climb higher as average tenures shrink and younger workers in particular get comfortable (wisely or not) with job hopping. Second, it’s true that many of these studies paint a clear diagnosis of the problem–of disenchanted young professionals all searching for meaningful work and failing to find it. The data really is both overwhelming and consistent.

But, third–and despite appearances to the contrary–we still know precious little about the core traits that millennials, as a generational unit, actually share.


The reason is methodological. “Much of the research on millennials is difficult to decipher,” explains Dr. Katina Sawyer, associate professor of psychology at Villanova University, “because we don’t have longitudinal studies that tell us whether or not we are capturing age effects . . . or actual stable generational differences.” Most studies simply take a snapshot of a generation at a single point in time or at very close intervals. “So, all generational research needs to be taken with a grain of salt,” she cautions, “given that we don’t have data that has followed older generations’ attitudes over time.”

Fast Company columnist Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic recently made an identical observation–and took it a step further: “Even if average differences between generations do exist,” he argued, “they still aren’t big enough to eliminate the wide range of individual differences when it comes to any relevant career trait.”

Related Video: Russell Simmons Gives Millennials A Voice With All Def Digital

So why all the hand-wringing over millennials and their supposedly unprecedented thirst for purposeful work? As leadership consultant and clinical psychologist Dr. Constance Dierickx points out, “Millennials are a generation of people that have a really big microphone called social media,” which recruiters, HR leaders, and a bevvy of experts have become just as adept at scouring for insights as marketers have. (It’s worth adding that virtually all the firms that publish research about millennials also sell consulting services to companies struggling to hire and retain them.)

“The idea that young adults have an urge to do meaningful work is not new,” Dierickx says. “I’m a baby boomer, and if you took a list of words about millennials and showed it to baby boomers and asked, ‘Does this describe you when you were 21?” we’d say, ‘Yeah!’” In other words, young people have always wanted to do meaningful work and have felt less motivated to do it for a fat paycheck.

What we’re seeing now, she wagers, may be “a natural sort of pendulum-swing from, ‘Everybody wants to become an investment banker’ to ‘I want to do good in the world.’ ‘Purpose’ has become a euphemism for [the latter], but your purpose can be anything,” she says.


Does Everyone Want Something Different?

Does that mean companies need to individually sort out exactly what makes each of their employees tick? Yes and no.

The motivation problem, in Dierickx’s view, has “an easy answer but it’s hard to do: You have to know your people. Managers have to have enough of a relationship with the people on their team that they understand what is emotionally important” to each of them.

It goes back to the research issue. “Watching people’s behavior will tell you more about them than listening to what they say,” says Dierickx. “Companies spend a lot of money trying to raise their stupid survey results, when they need to find the right people and put them in the right spot and make sure they have enough fuel and don’t take the oxygen away from them.”

According to Sawyer, “When it comes to motivation, the picture is more clearly universal. In fact, the research suggests that regardless of generation, people want to be connected to something greater at work–a meaning or a purpose that is larger than just a paycheck.” People of all ages, she says, report that “they would continue working, regardless of whether or not they needed the money.”

Dierickx agrees that “intrinsic” motivation is important across the board, whereas pandering to “‘extrinsic’ motivations either doesn’t work or it’s temporary.” The problem, says Sawyer, is that “we also know that individuals’ motivations are diverse . . . Some folks are aimed at making a difference in society, others are aimed at spending more time with family and friends, still others are aimed at being recognized as an expert in their field, and so on.”


Why We Keep Getting It Wrong

But identifying each employee’s intrinsic motivations is tough, and the managers who’d otherwise do that have their own jobs to do. “Until we have tools that help us to better explore what motivates people,” Sawyer says, “managers often default to using money, because it’s easier than having conversations with employees to find out what makes them tick.”

Meanwhile, consulting firms are scrambling to fill the gap, and companies, desperate to stem costly attrition rates, pour investments into retention, most of which Dierickx sees as a lost cause. “Companies spend a huge amount of money trying to–quote–‘motivate’ and help people find their purpose when [those employees are] marginal.” Many aren’t even worth hanging onto, she says, because they’re simply poor fits in the first place; they’re either “not capable, they don’t give a crap, or they aren’t in the right job.”

“The best way to use motivation,” she adds, “is to identify it, not try to create it.” When someone finds their job fulfilling–for any number of idiosyncratic, personal reasons–“the job becomes the reward, assuming,” Dierickx is quick to emphasize, “they are getting paid enough and they feel like things are fair enough . . . [but] you don’t get more from paying them more.”

Sawyer concurs: “Overall, while having an equitable salary is necessary for motivation, once equity is achieved, our needs and goals go way beyond money.”

As Dierickx sees it, what’s been true long before there were millennials in the workforce will remain true long after they’ve left it: “You have to know your people,” and you can rarely do that by surveying them en masse and then offering raises or instituting ‘engagement’ programs. Purpose is much more personal, and that’s what makes it such a powerful motivator–now and always and for everyone.


“Facts make people think, and feelings make them act,” she adds. “That’s just a fact of psychology. You can ride that all the way to the bank.”

About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.