What Millennials Want at Work (It's Not What You Think)

"They keep telling me, "here's what you get in five years, ten years, twenty years...I feel like -- what's that expression -- they are trying to sell me a bridge."-- Gen Y'er

"Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Gen Y" by Bruce Tulgan

What do Millennials want from a job? Not the bosses' job as it turns out. While it's true they are ambitious, their ambition is less about climbing the corporate ladder than making sure they are on the right ladder to learn and grow.

While Boomers and X'ers seek titles (and the responsibility and salary that go with them), Millennials are more likely to respond to increased challenge, unique experiences and recognition. Above all, they seek balance in their lives. 78% of high school students say that 'having close family relationship' is more important than money and fame in defining success.

Boomers and X'ers are prepared to compete and sacrifice to reach their goals. Most Millennials are not. This is often misinterpretted as 'laziness', but in reality reflects a different set of motivations, no less intense than that of Boomers.

From a young age, Millennials were taught group cooperation over individual competition. A colleague related a story to me earlier this week about her 15-year old son's race to be elected freshman class president. He prepared a speech, posters, a platform. But to her Boomer eyes, the degree of cooperation among the candidates was incomprehensible. Her son actually helped rewrite a competitors' speech, without considering that he was giving away a potential advantage. ("But Mom, it was lame!") When Millennials are asked to tackle something new at work, they are less likely to think of it an opportunity to shine individually as they are to wonder who they can involve to insure a better outcome and make it more fun.

Much as been made about the oh-so-Millennial ending of "The Devil Wears Prada". In the book as well as the movie, the protagonist, Andy, works hard to meet the unrelenting demands of her irrational boss. She triumphs, lands the promotion, then declines what appeared to be her goal and her dream job. This ending makes no sense to Boomers, but Gen Y find this ending quite satisfactory. The goal was to not to win, but to have a job you love enough to want to invest your life in. Andy realized early in the movie that the fashion world was not a good fit for her idea of a meaningful life. The only suspense for Gen Y was how she would quit, not whether.

Need data to support that? The percent of young adults answering 'yes' to the question, 'Would you like a job with more responsibility?' declined from 80% in 1992 to just 60% in 2002. That doesn't mean they wouldn't like a challenge, they just don't think their boss' job is 'worth it'.(Families and Work Institute)

What they do want is to make an impact while doing interesting meaningful work, in a job that allows them to lead a balanced life and doesn't box them in to a traditional career path. A survey across thirty-three countries showed that the top priorities were interesting work (29%), meaningful work (18%), and worklife balance (18%). ("Plugged In", Tamara Erickson, p.66)

Deloitte, one of the largest recruiters of top entry level talent, invested heavily in understanding what Gen Y wants from a job. At the Qualitative Research Consultants Association meeting in Chicago early this month, Tracey Scott of Deloitte Canada, shared the results of research conducted to provide strategic direction for their recruiting efforts. The resulting campaign, titled 'Truth', was based on the insight that Millennials have a different 'checklist' to evaluate their first job than those who recruit them. What Millennials want to hear is that 'everyone is willing to help you succeed'. They want to know that they will not be alone and they will have an impact. The Deloitte home page asks, "Will the business change you? Or will you change the business?". The next page challenges job seekers to "Find Yourself Among Our People" by profiling young professionals and telling their story.

While every generation brings a unique perspective, I suspect Millennials will shape the workplace more than the workplace will shape them.

Their attitudes are deeply rooted in the times and ways they were raised and unlikely to change.

Their sheer numbers will make them difficult to ignore for long.

Their propensity to look for greener pastures if they determine their needs aren't being met will cause companies to rethink what they have to offer.

They won't settle for higher salary and they aren't interested in waiting around or 'paying their dues'.

Consequently, the basic work 'contract' is likely to be fundamentally altered to accommodate the question 'what's in this for me?'. Bruce Tulgan, in his book, "Not Everyone Gets a Trophy" provides a the perfect quote:

"They keep telling me, "Here's what you get in five years, ten years, twenty years..." but they expect me to come back to work tomorrow. What do I get tomorrow?


  1. I believe the line; "Will the business change you? Or will you change the workplace?" perfectly exemplifies Gen Y. Too often I hear from pundits that Gen Y is too lazy and is unwilling to 'revolt and protest' against the ills of society. However, I think these people fail to realize that Millennials have seen that the protests of the Baby Boom generation were not always successful, and have chosen to create a revolution from within the system.

    And to a large degree they have been incredibly successful: the election of President Obama, new ways to work, the ipod/iphone/imac revolution are all examples. Their most important contribution might be in the work world though where even 5 years ago it would have been unimaginable for a company to allow its employees to interact on Facebook or work from home. I think that companies who accept these new attitudes will be far ahead of the competition, and will lead us out of this recession.

  2. I am a 24 year old grad student, and I already know I prioritize the family I don't yet have over work-- this doesn't mean I will shirk responsibilities, but it does mean that, once I get to a level where I am paid an amount that will guarantee a comfortable life, while also being intellectually challenged by my job, I will be satisfied. I have no desire to be at the top of the corporate food chain, and while it would be nice to be rich, my idea of success is based more on human bonds than on the big house, nice suit, and 90 hour work week. Some of my friends, though, are looking to big firms in places like New York City, where their primary goals are money and making partner-- so not everyone is as stereotypical millenial as I am. We're still a mix, but for me, becoming the "boss" isn't as important as making time for family. We all have different priorities, and I don't think that any individual is neccessarily more correct in their priorities than anyone else.

  3. Millennials Rock! As a Boomer who spends his time helping people "work and play well with others", I have observed members of the other generations wanting to change the world of work for the better and seeking more "work/life balance". However, until the Millennials showed up, it was business as usual. I do believe that listening to Millennials will give organizations a competitive advantage.

  4. Carol

    Yet again a great post. I too have found this generation are more social minded and really "care" about collobrative success and work/life balance.

    I think for some Xers this can be very difficult to understand and adapt too since it is an alien way of thinking.

    Managers need to remember that what makes them tick may not make their young employees tick and create more opne and collabrative processes.

    I have found that most companies have very youth "unfriendly" policies and wrote a recent blog post on it ( link below if anyone wants to read it )

    Thanks so much for your great work once again.

    Sarah Newton