What’s the difference between how millennials and generation X are motivated?

Posted by in eMBA, Leadership, Master thesis, Organizational Behaviour

There are many different thoughts and opinions circulating around in the “literature” and certainly on the internet about the cohort “millennials”. In my master thesis “What motivates professional early millennials in the workplace?” I surveyed 80 early millennial and generation X participants from 22 countries with a questionnaire and semi-structured in-depth interviewed 14 participants from 9 countries.

On the question “What in your experience is the difference between generation X and millennials in the workplace?” the following interpretation could be made:

With the exception of one participant, who’s a generation X:er, and states that millennials are focused on immediate gratification, expect praise and be constantly online on their phones, the data I gathered doesn’t show that millennials are helicopter parented and that’s why they are as they are (Miller, Hodge, Brandt, Schneider 2013). Many participants express their thoughts that there really are no difference between the cohorts:

— “As people I think we are very alike”

A picture is painted out that millennials are more flexible, more relaxed, confident, self-assured, more individual, open minded and ready to respond to change, than generation X. The reason that can be read from the answers is that the millennials had more access to technology, more opportunities to try different things, a completely different societal support that allows mistakes.

Millennials supposedly work faster, are more entrepreneurial and thinks about career and promotion more. This comes from the millennials themselves.

Perhaps this can be answered in how the question is asked and to which cohort the participant identifies with the most. Many participants were early millennials and may not think themselves that they are millennials.

A comparison between millennials and generation X gives the following answers:

(Rate how important the following motivators are at work for you)

Millennials Generation X
Efficient Communication style (Using messaging, e-mails, social networking first and face-to-face only when needed) 5. Very important 35.7% 34.8%
4. Somewhat important 33.9% 47.8%
3. Neither important or unimportant 19.6% 4.3%
2. Unimportant 10.7% 8.7%
1. Very unimportant 0.0% 4.3%


Mobility (travel, relocation, opportunity abroad) 5. Very important 44.6% 21.7%
4. Somewhat important 42.9% 30.4%
3. Neither important or unimportant 8.9% 26.1%
2. Unimportant 0.0% 17.4%
1. Very unimportant 3.6% 4.3%


High Engagement (included in planning, design, how to do things) 5. Very important 62.5% 60.9%
4. Somewhat important 26.8% 30.4%
3. Neither important or unimportant 3.6% 8.7%
2. Unimportant 3.6% 0.0%
1. Very unimportant 3.6% 0.0%


Less Oversight (Less supervision, a lot of responsibility, freedom to set own schedule) 5. Very important 57.1% 65.2%
4. Somewhat important 30.4% 34.8%
3. Neither important or unimportant 5.4% 0.0%
2. Unimportant 3.6% 0.0%
1. Very unimportant 3.6% 0.0%


Training (continuous development, corporate training programs, courses) 5. Very important 46.4% 34.8%
4. Somewhat important 37.5% 39.1%
3. Neither important or unimportant 8.9% 21.7%
2. Unimportant 1.8% 4.3%
1. Very unimportant 5.4% 0.0%


Leadership (Good leader, mentoring) 5. Very important 62.5% 60.9%
4. Somewhat important 28.6% 34.8%
3. Neither important or unimportant 5.4% 0.0%
2. Unimportant 0.0% 4.3%
1. Very unimportant 3.6% 0.0%


Compassion (helping others, focus on others, make sure we feel alright, fair, mindfulness) 5. Very important 42.9% 43.5%
4. Somewhat important 37.5% 43.5%
3. Neither important or unimportant 12.5% 13%
2. Unimportant 3.6% 0%
1. Very unimportant 3.6% 0%


Money (high salary) 5. Very important 25.0% 17.4%
4. Somewhat important 66.1% 73.9%
3. Neither important or unimportant 7.1% 8.7%
2. Unimportant 0% 0%
1. Very unimportant 1.8% 0%

Putting data from the questions together, it can be concluded that even though there are some differences between how the generation X and millennials are motivated, the differences are minor.

It may be linked to how long employees have been in their work lives, in the sense that everyone is naturally seeking guidance and information early in their career and with experience comes a more mature level. This may mean that as employees develop over time, they become more knowledgeable as they learn their jobs better. The danger of this thinking though is that it assumes that employees would stay in the same role for a long time.

The data from the quantitative survey shows that the majority of participants changed jobs many times already, despite their age. This can indicate that the matter is more complex. Some participants suggested that the access to technology has been more extensive for millennials. But both generations had access to the same technology, so it must be linked to the interest to learn new things, if this argument should hold. The next step in the discussion would then be to ask if millennials are more interested (or eager) to learn new things, compared to generation X? The data in the thesis doesn’t answer this question.

We can conclude, that some millennials see themselves generally as faster than generation X – but this doesn’t mean that it’s either true nor does it mean that the generations are motivated differently. The conclusion is therefore that the comparative evaluation shows that there are significant differences and gaps in how millennials are motivated, but more within the cohort than compared to generation X.

In the master thesis “What motivates professional early millennials in the workplace” (Mejlerö, 2016) I research the topic in with objectives: 1) Critical evaluation of the latest research on the subject, 2) A comparative evaluation of the differences and gaps between how generation X and millennials are motivated, 3) Looking at the seven areas of work motivation, 4) How important is the line manager in the career of the millennials and 5) the establishment of a best practice list of the most important workplace activities the motivates millennials to use their full potential.
Miller, Hodge, Brandt, Schneider (2013) “The Young and the Restless Gen Y’ers in the Workplace! Are You Prepared?”. Publisher: FDCC Quarterly (Federation of Defense & Corporate Counsel).
Schawbel, D (March 29, 2012) “Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: Who Would You Rather Hire?” Time, URL: http://business.time.com/2012/03/29/millennials-vs-baby-boomers-who-would-you-rather-hire/ Accessed on [January 11th 2016).