Gallup loves them some data. In a lengthy report, they characterized millennials as the least engaged generation (29%), the most indifferent about their jobs, and the most open to “new job opportunities” (60%).

According to many experts, millennials most desire a job that feels worthwhile. They may choose purpose or meaning over money – a concept that causes many boomer business owners to choke on their morning coffee.

Is it true? Will millennials work harder, better, and with more conviction if provided meaning and a purpose?

And, is it also true that without this meaning and purpose, your millennial workers will have one foot out the door and will be less engaged in their work?

The answer according to Master Yoda: “Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view.”

Revisiting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for Millennial Engagement

Those who suffered through the great depression view the world as unpredictable and unsafe. To them, work brought the stability and safety they craved.

Boomers, while less apt to see the world in such a harsh light, have a world view that compels them to work hard for what they want. They believe that there are no guarantees and that work is what you do to earn the money you need for the life you want.

Generation X’ers were imbued with some of the “hard work” attitude of their parents, but were afforded the luxuries their parents didn’t have. They are only slightly less engaged at work than their parents, but often more entrepreneurial.

Millennials are sometimes referred to as “entitled.” Their basic needs are met, they have fewer worries, and unlike their great grandparents, their greatest fears are far from financial. However, remove their sense of financial stability and they’ll be as likely to ask for a raise as any worker.

Yoda: “On the surface, the answer is not.”
Millennial Engagement at Work

When viewed from Maslow’s perspective, it makes perfect sense that millennials are more apt to seek meaning and purpose. They have the time, the luxury, and the freedom to do what their grandparents could not. It is not entitlement so much as it is a psychological and emotional freedom.

We can “logically conclude” that by providing more meaning and purpose to millennials, they will become more satisfied in their jobs, more engaged, more productive, and more likely to stay with the company.

Many business owners are discovering that the answer isn’t so simple.

Is the solution to the “millennial problem” counter-intuitive?

Revisit Yoda’s statement: “Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view.”

As a (likely older) business owner, your “truth” about purpose and meaning is unique to you. Where you might find meaning in relationships or purpose in a greater cause, that millennial you’re trying to “incentivize” may not share your definition. This may explain why your efforts seem to fall flat.

Going out on a limb…

What if the freedom, flexibility, rewards, recognition, and incentives we give to millennials in exchange for their engagement and accountability have the exact opposite effect we want?

Millennials already expect freedom, flexibility, rewards, and recognition. These are a given in their lives, like water from a fountain or rain during the Rose Festival in Oregon.

Enthusiasm does not ensue when one is given what he expects.

What, then, can we “give” to millennials that can create the engagement and accountability we desire?

I propose that millennials (and most anyone today) might become more engaged when given greater structure. This is counter-intuitive because we easily mistake structure for restrictive rules and regulations. Structure done well can increase the sense of freedom, encourage creativity, and even create greater personal meaning.

For example, digital games provide a structure in which creative solutions are required to solve complex problems. Meaning and satisfaction are derived from encountering obstacles, solving problems, and achieving new levels of excellence that are personally obtained.

We do millennials a disservice by protecting them from structure, for fear that they will grab their bags and run to the next job. Insisting that they get engaged, solve problems, or stretch themselves without proving structure and by giving meaningless incentives is like trying to play soccer without goal posts, sidelines, or keeping score.

Update June 7: What if the economy falters?

A question was asked if millennials would shift their focus from meaning to money if things suddenly weren’t so easy. My crystal ball is broken, so I can’t give a definitive answer. However, my hypothesis is that they would NOT think like Boomers and take a job just to make ends meet. They’d be happy with less, so long as they continue to feel secure in getting their basic needs met. Having a good, solid structure that enables freedom and gives them challenges and a sense of purpose would perhaps be even more important.

In conclusion

There isn’t a single solution to the problem of millennial engagement. However, perhaps we can emulate today’s digital games and provide a well-defined structure that enables and encourages personal achievement within the structure. It won’t solve the world’s problems, but it may just increase the engagement of your millennials at work.

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