Recognising, Rewarding and Motivating Millennials

How do you solve a problem like millennials?

Well, first of all, you stop listening to the stereotypes.

We've all heard about the Millennial generation and how they're lazy, entitled narcissists – not to mention needy, and lack resilience. They’re un-creative and don’t work hard enough, too. They need constant praise, or they’ll just give up. But what do you do when your workforce is mostly made up of Generation Y echo boomers, otherwise known as Generation Me?

First off, disregard everything you've just read; because it's simply untrue.

Busting some millennial myths

Writing in Forbes, behavioural statistician Joseph Folkman surveyed workers to see if some of the most common claims about millennials actually held up. He found that the most common characteristics often applied to those born between the early 80s and late 90s don’t necessarily apply any more than they do to Generation X (the generation before) or Baby Boomers (the generation before that). For example:

  • Constant need for feedback: 69% of millennials said they regularly asked for feedback, compared to 53% of other generations. However, historical data says that younger generations have always asked for more feedback than older – suggesting it’s a trait of young people who are new to the workplace, rather than millennials specifically.
  • Insecurity and need for praise: The idea that millennials are coddled, insecure and need constant praise is common. But 66% of all workers said they wanted more praise and recognition – so again, it’s not just millennials. People just need to know they’re on the right track, and like to be recognised for doing good work!
  • Lack of loyalty: Millennials are just as likely to be thinking about moving onto a new job as Generation X (51% of each demographic, compared to 39% of Baby Boomers).
  • Laziness: A separate study found that millennials were more likely to take on more hours than other generations, with more millennials willing to work long hours and weekends too.

Essentially, the criticisms levelled against millennials are more or less the same as any criticisms that the older generation has ever made of those younger than them.

The stigma against millennials does seem to be a bit fiercer than in previous generations though – fuelled by the rise of the internet, with so much more digital space to fill, you’ll find endless columns on why millennials are awful. In truth, millennials are likely to be the first generation to earn less than their parents – with some commentators arguing that myths about millennials have largely come about to hide the shame of the previous generations’ failure to provide for their future.

Millennials are not all the same

So, if the stereotypes about millennials are wrong, then what traits do define this particular age group?

Well, given that the UK contingent of Generation Y is made up of roughly 14 million people of all backgrounds, races, genders, classes, sexualities, interests and industries, it’s fairly safe to say that there really aren’t any.

As the stats above show, issues common to the age group – insecurity at work, a desire to do better, the need for support, and a sense of self-preservation implied by keeping an eye out for jobs that may be better than the one they’re currently in – are common to just about everyone in the UK.

However, there are millions of individual variations as to how they would prefer these needs are fulfilled.

So, what do you need to do?

The first, obvious step is to stop viewing millennials as one large homogenous group that thinks about the world around them totally differently to the rest of your employees. If you don't, you may find your staff retention rates skyrocketing and exit interviews becoming all-too-common!

Instead, start thinking of them as the present – and future – of your workforce. What’s good for them is good for everyone.

Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, while inadvertently reinforcing some stereotypes by not comparing the responses of millennials to likely similar responses that might be heard from older generations, have the right idea, offering suggestions on how to “win over the next generation of leaders”.

Their findings of what millennials want out of work would likely be shared across generations – but are backed for Generation Y by some statistical (and far less speculative) differences between the age groups.

Work-life balance and flexibility

Almost 17% of millennials told Deloitte that the most important driver of employer choice (apart from salary) would be work-life balance. A further 11% cite flexibility, such as remote working and flexible hours. Why could this be?

Well, it may have something to do with the fact that millennial mothers are more likely to be single, and as such need more time out of work to care for their children. Employers that provide assistance with childcare will, as a result, likely be looked upon more favourably by workers approaching their late 20s and early 30s.

Progression and personal development

Just over 13% of millennials said the opportunity to progress is most important to them, with a further 8% valuing professional development.  but is wanting to do better at work and move up an organisation really such an unusual trait? This issue is particularly important for millennials as the retirement age rises and people are encouraged to stay in work for longer and longer.

With older, more experienced people holding senior positions, there are less opportunities for young people to progress. More people aged 16-24 are on zero-hour contracts than any other age groups, and millennials are stuck on an “entry-level carousel”, as the Washington Times puts it.

Again, millennials are often called entitled for wanting more senior roles without putting in the years to get there. But millennials are actually the best-educated generation in history, with higher education regularly sold to the young as the key to a good job straight out of university – until that bubble burst a few years ago. Can we blame young people for expecting things that were all but promised to them?

Offering mentorship to younger employers, and long-term plans for progression, as well as employee benefits such as salary sacrifice programs that help junior employers on lower wages access external training courses are all ways of showing young employees that you’re willing to invest in their future.

Deloitte found that mentorships are particularly important – young employees with mentors are twice as likely to want to stay with their employer. The key to winning over the next generation of leaders, it seems, is to actually treat them like the next generation of leaders.

All about money

Another common perception levelled at millennials is that they don’t care about money, and can’t manage it anyway, because they’re supported by their parents. This is, of course, a generalisation – but the statistics that show millennials are the worst-paid generation (even when the recession is taken into account) are not.

Deloitte’s survey found that pay and financial benefits are the biggest factor for millennials – but higher salaries may not always be practical for organisations to offer. Instead, there are other ways to offer support that are appealing to cash-strapped young professionals.

In Non-Financial Recognition: The Most Effective of Rewards, Michael Silverman argues that the importance of financial rewards has been overemphasised across the board, and that there are “a whole host of alternate motivators that can act to influence employee behaviour and enhance employee motivation”, including:

  • Acknowledging employee efforts
  • Gifts, such as vouchers, events, or domestic goods.
  • Perks and benefits at work.

Rewards of this kind either cost nothing, or cost far less than pay rises, but can have a fantastic impact on staff wellbeing. The symbolic value of a reward presented in the right way can far exceed the financial value it provides to an employee, as it is, as Silverman explains, “a visible sign that [their] individual contribution is being acknowledged”.

Benefits can also help employees save money, rather than providing them money – which can incur costs that are a fraction of a pay rise, yet offer savings and provide support with a net value far in excess of what the raise would actually have been.


So, the best way to recognise and reward millennials is, by and large, to stop thinking of them as “millennials” and to start thinking of them as employees that you want to nurture and motivate to contribute to your organisation over the long term, just as you would with older staff. There are no hacks to buying the loyalty of young people – giving guidance, ensuring a life outside of work, and providing support through benefits are surely things that would be welcomed by all.