Millennial Motivation

By Rick Dandes

The growing workplace influence of millennials—that generation generally defined as those individuals born between 1980 and the mid-2000s (exact definitions vary)—has sparked an urgency within organizations to understand their world and their motivations. After all, millennials now represent the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, at 33 percent, said Michelle Smith, vice president, business development, O.C. Tanner, of Salt Lake City, Utah.

“That number surpasses the baby boomer workforce population, which has declined to 31 percent,” said Smith, who has written extensively on the subject for the Performance Improvement Council. By 2020, she noted in one of her white papers, the U.S. workforce will flip from 50 percent baby boomers to 25 percent baby boomers and 50 percent millennials.

Millennials rank as the largest generation ever, and they’re the incontestable driving force in both the workforce and the marketplace, so the question for executive leadership becomes: How different are they from previous generations? And how can we best manage their performance?

Already the majority population at many organizations, millennials stand to become a tremendous influence on the future of work and the most important consumer generation in history, with an estimated $170 billion in spending power.

There are differences between millennials and baby boomers in the way they respond to programs and rewards of interest. “From a structural perspective,” explained Ira Ozer, founder and president, Engagement Partners, Chappaqua, N.Y., “millennials are ‘digital natives’ and prefer faster, soundbite-sized communications and quick engagement actions.”

Boomers are more patient and comfortable with longer-form information and engagement steps. For example, running an all-digital incentive program focused on mobile devices, with quick, gamified quizzes and actions will work more effectively with millennials than boomers, Ozer said.

“From a reward perspective,” he continued, “boomers are more likely to be interested in saving award points for larger items that are more substantive and provide ‘trophy value’ than millennials, who will redeem for smaller awards that are fun and useful.”

Millennials might redeem for fun, retro-type cameras, for example, which allow them to take pictures and hand prints to their friends, as well as small housewares that they need for their starter homes and apartments.

“Millennials are masters of their own brand,” added Justin Cesler, content manager, Aimia US. “They are technologically dependent, they are educated, and they are in the business of marketing themselves socially every day.” In terms of incentive, rewards and recognition programs, Kessler believes they look for more than just a personal reward. They require the reward to also help boost their personal brand. This can be through exclusivity, affiliation or amplification in both the real world and online. “For example,” he said, “10 percent off an item is good, but 5 percent off an exclusive item earned through the program is better. An exclusive item is great, but a tweet from the brand and an item is even better! Millennials identify with, and socially partner with, brands that fit into their lifestyle and programs that help elevate them to the next level.”

Understanding Millennials

Millennials have unique priorities and, for employers, this can create challenges. Their view of the world is different from any previous generation, and employers need to understand how to build millennials’ trust, increase their engagement and win their business.

Considered by many as the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s, millennials tend to be much more tolerant and altruistic. Maybe the reason for that, said Dena Hirschberg, vice president of sales and marketing, of Chicago-based Helping Hands Partners, is millennials have been given positive reinforcement “right out of the gate. They respond to programs emphasizing esteem building. Any kind of negative feedback typically should be given in a positive way. They work, they play and are social, in all these different media platforms. Although they are ‘on’ 24/7, there is also a work-play balance that is a little bit different from what other generations are used to. A high priority is given on life outside of work.”

Having witnessed a variety of corporate scandals firsthand, millennials actively seek authentic leaders and ethical corporate policies as they enter and progress through their careers. They look for inspiration and value accountability.

“If today’s business leaders want to connect with millennials,” Smith said, “they should embrace clear missions, ethical corporate values and accountability. Millennials want to believe in the organizations they work for and the brands they support, so transparency, authenticity and involvement in altruistic causes rank as important business strategies.”

“What we have found,” Hirschberg explained, “is organizations that embrace social responsibility as a core value mirror the goals and intent of millennials. So reward and recognition products that are socially responsible— products that the recipient can see having an immediate benefit to the community—are rewards worn proudly by millennials. They want to carry that brand and they will feel good about the company they work for. What is interesting to me are studies that show this is also good for business. Socially responsible companies are attracting better talent, retaining talent and reducing turnover.”

The Plugged-In Generation

Millennials are the first generation raised on technology. They grew up immersed in the digital era and feel totally at ease working with the intricacies of the Internet, mobile technology and social media. Outpacing all older generations in social networking and cell phone use, they consider technology as an extension of their bodies. They keep smart phones, iPads and laptops close by, and multitasking is second nature to these digital natives.

“Having come of age with mobile technology at their fingertips,” Smith said, “millennials view their time as a valuable resource so they multitask in order not to waste it. They are used to being connected to mobile technology at all times and fully expect to communicate directly with family and friends while at work. They believe their ‘always-connected’ state actually outweighs any loss of concentration and makes them more productive. To facilitate the transition of millennials into the workplace, companies should integrate up-to-date technology as part of the overall infrastructure. Because millennials live so much of their lives through technology, they view work as an activity that just needs to get done.”

Unlike the generations before them, they don’t particularly value ‘face’ or ‘desk’ time. This new orientation doesn’t easily fit traditional work arrangements, so thinking companies will benefit from establishing flexible, informal, engaging processes and work environments.

Millennials are also weary of data collection and are skeptical of any program that collects data in exchange for inclusion, Cesler said. While they are early adopters of technology and frequent contributors to social media channels, they like to control the content and prefer to understand how it will be used. Not to say millennials are in control of that data now, but transparency and updates on data collection policies are important.

Additionally, millennials require more interaction with a brand than any other demographic, and must be constantly engaged by a program to stay connected. This interaction must be authentic and—most importantly—it must be a two-way street. Simply talking to millennials won’t do; you must be willing to engage in both sides of the conversation.

Myths and Challenges

Some people believe millennials are self-absorbed and don’t work hard, but Hirschberg insists that is anything but the truth. “They are hard-working, self-motivated and expect great things for themselves,” she said. “They are dedicated and have a passion for what they do. They respond to team-building. In fact, millennials work well within the give-and-take of a team environment.”

It’s also true that millennials were once thought of as flighty, in-the-moment addicts, added Cesler, “but they are actually much more loyal than that. A Snapchat may only last 10 seconds, but that engagement with the brand or person lives a long life. Incentives, rewards and recognition must be well thought out and longstanding, while also living within those little 10-second moments.”

Molded by their upbringing into achievement junkies, they have an ingrained sense of purpose and an inherent drive to succeed. Millennials crave meaningful, challenging work so they can personally feel they make a difference.

To help keep them from getting bored, managers may want to keep millennials in the loop with frequent communication about how the particular tasks they perform contribute to the company’s strategic goals. They want immediate feedback, Hirschberg added. “And…they are seeking that feedback from their managers and expect it frequently. They also respond to a variety of tasks to keep their job interesting, and they want to feel a sense of accomplishment.”

Willing to work hard in order to achieve and advance in the workplace, they also crave structure and a clear career path. Managers should not only tell, but also show millennials what success looks like. Measurable goals, concrete benchmarks and regular training that help millennials maintain cutting-edge skill sets and achieve professional goals will all help managers get better results from their newest workers. In short, millennials want strong leadership and clear instructions.

Millennials believe they are special and want their managers to recognize their specific strengths. In fact, a close relationship between supervisor and employee may actually help ensure that millennials develop loyalty to their companies and meet their own performance goals. Not surprisingly, mentoring relationships can work well with this group as long as the mentors check in often to make sure their protégés stay on track with projects and have the necessary resources to feel sufficiently supported.

Engaging and Motivating the Workforce

Business leaders need to understand the characteristics of the millennial generation: broad optimism, social tolerance and involvement, value of work-life balance, team orientation, desire for inclusion, inherent trust issues and embodiment of technological communications. Leaders and marketers ought to demonstrate that they value and care about millennials and want to foster relationships with them.

As a matter of fact, Smith said, anyone who wants to successfully market to this newest adult generation should fully comprehend that millennials:
• Use Google and other search engines to do their own research before purchasing.
• Can be attracted through social media, blogs, electronic newsletters, etc.
• Often rely on video content for learning.
• Trust testimonials from their peers and peer groups.
• Want customized solutions that fit their lifestyles.

Because of their relentless electronic research, millennials have different expectations from those of previous generations when it comes to making purchases and engaging in retail commerce. As customers, millennials know about, and expect, the best value from what is available. In this context, marketers will want to focus on creating specific messages and products that resonate with millennials.

Social media is an incredible motivator for many millennials. The need to update their feed—their brand—drives decisions on a daily basis. Is the upgrade to first class worth it if nobody knows about it? How would that first-class seat look on your Instagram travel page? Are the newest shoes essential for your shoe blog? Do you need an exclusive vinyl record from your artist of choice to post on Snapchat? If so, millennials—more than any other demographic—will seek ways to gain access to these perks. This helps drive loyalty and rewards programs if they create the right incentives.

Reprinted from PREMIUM INCENTIVE PRODUCTS magazine


  1. Interesting article Thank you sharing it.

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