Admittedly my perspective may be skewed by my location – I’m in Ottawa, surrounded by abstract public servants, or self-important technology (especially software) companies. They read the popular press, and believe what they read there. Both of these universes tend to think the Millennials are special and need to be handled with kid gloves (oops, accommodated) in order to attract and retain them in the proverbial fold. Curiously, only one of these universes actually does anything about this cohort, though I’m not sure it’s the right thing.

Technology companies actively pursuing scarce programming talent, of any age, are quick to diagnose problems to effective recruiting and on-boarding, and even quicker to apply remedies: ‘Of course these Millennials want to play computer games in their down time, and it makes perfect sense to install foosball tables in the cafeteria.’ And so the actions of these employers reinforce the stereotypes of the distracted Gen Ys.

But do all young people, lucky enough to be employed, want these latest hygiene baubles?

Or are Millennials just as motivated by real motivators as previous generations?

Frederick Herzberg demonstrated in his research that people in fact are not motivated by extrinsic factors (foosball tables and beer carts) beyond the initial attraction to the organization. He called them hygiene factors (Dissatisfiers if not met):
Working conditions
Policies and administrative practices
Salary and Benefits
Job security
Affect on Personal life

Rather, people are motivated, both to join and to incrementally improve performance by the opportunity for:
Job challenge

For Herzberg true motivators are intrinsic, internal to the person. And chief of these is the work itself; people are internally satisfied by the opportunity to do something, to use their best talents in accomplishing something worthwhile, even if only modest. Besides engaging an employee’s competencies, Herzberg also argued that employers can design the work-place to meet two other intrinsic needs: Relatedness and Autonomy. Human beings are social animals and the extent to which people are motivated to interact with others, having opportunity to relate to others in the workplace is often important to work satisfaction. And lastly, people like to be responsible for their own work, to be held accountable for their results, and have the freedom and necessary authority to act on their own.

Many managers today scratch their heads and rail away at what they think (or have heard) are the untenable attitudes of Millennials: spoiled, self-absorbed, obsessed with technology over relationships, expect to be rewarded for little effort, ‘illiterate’; and they worry that organizations have to accommodate these young tyrants rather than the other way around.

These issues may be more a matter of ‘socialization’ than innate characteristics of an entire generation. Young people may act inappropriately in an employment setting, not because they are Millennials but because they are young – they have yet to learn how to behave in a work world. Think about when you were a new entrant in the workplace. Were you lucky enough to have a mentor, guide, or co-worker to show you the ropes? – and the ropes are not just the technical requirements of the job. If you are a manager of younger workers – especially Millennials – you owe it to them to train them in the corporate culture – ‘how things are done around here’.

It may be true that Millennials (and probably Gen Xers), whose parents suffered the indignities of the recessions of 1991 and 2001, have become jaded of employers who promise one thing – pay and pensions, and pool tables – but deliver the opposite – layoffs and underemployment. They won’t be bought; they want to do meaningful work, they want to be recognized for their

[legitimate] contributions, they want to learn and grow and take on more responsibility. At age 23 they are willing to keep on looking until they find it. Sadly, later in life, they become more cautious and conflicted when they want both job security – in order to pay the kids’ school fees – and meaningful work.

As a manager you can’t motivate anyone. Only employees can motivate themselves through their innate drive to do good work and be recognized for it. They want to be able to utilize their best talents in the performance of the work; they want their values to be in sync with those of the organization that they work in; they want to choose the people they work with and have the opportunity to share in their knowledge and skills; they want to be empowered to do their own work within the limits of their abilities; to be given power and authority over the work that they do, to be able [more or less] to freely choose how and when and to what standard the work should be done. Under these conditions an employee is likely to be highly motivated to perform their jobs to the best of their ability. It is the manager’s job to try to create those conditions. Unfortunately this takes real organizational creativity and effort. Hygiene is so much easier.

I am convinced that Frederick Herzberg has it right (The managerial choice: To be efficient and to be human, Frederick Herzberg, 1976) that the workplace is capable of being designed to optimize employee enrichment, that employees are motivated by the work itself, especially when they have control over results and process, and are recognized for their contributions. In this wise organizations can achieve a high level of employee engagement and performance for the benefit of the organization.

That is what Millennials want. Isn’t that what everyone wants?