Why Are Millennials Difficult?

I recently had the chance to chat about millennials in the workplace, and why they’re so difficult. Rather than just sharing my thoughts and readings privately, I decided to put them down in a post. Why? Because I’m a lazy millennial and I could re-use this more easily.

I have very few things to say on the topic, but I find my feelings are well supported.

  1. Start with why
  2. Have millennials work with you, rather than for you

Fareed Zakaria did an excellent job describing what I have long believed in his article “The Try-Hard Generation“:

Though Baby Boomers may criticize Millennials for being self-centered, careerist, and politically dispassionate, they are really just adapting to the world they live in today.


Part 1 – Why

Being more connected than any other generation, there is a tendency for millennials to constantly compare themselves with their most successful friends or hyper successful peers. If you add a tinge of social media embellishment, many millennials suffer from unrealistic expectations. This doesn’t mean they’re greedy. When a millennial asks for a massive raise, a manager may feel this is unabashed greed, but it may actually be someone trying desperately to justify their self worth in response to their college friend’s sister-in-law landing a prestigious and high-paying job at Google.

My experiences haven’t reinforced the notion of millennials being the lazy and greedy sort (maybe I’m just protecting my own ego). Fortunately for myself and my millennial peers, there is data that contradicts those views. In 2011, millennials were the most generous of the generations with 75% donating to charity, 71% raising funds for charities and 51% volunteering.

So, which is it? Are we greedy or generous.

I wish it were so simple, but there is some nuance to this. Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, does an excellent job describing the two worlds we live in. The social world were interactions and community are king and the market world where money rules the roost. If you want to know more about that, read the book. For now, let’s just take the conclusion.

If you’re confronted by a greedy millennial it’s because they view the relationship as being a market driven transaction. They’re applying great economic rigor in trying to capture as much of the surplus as possible. As far as economic rational actors go, millennials can be champs.

As painful as that is, there is also a solution. Change the nature of the relationship from market driven to including some social consequence – give them a purpose to their work that transcends just getting paid. For this, it’s best to give the company a purpose that goes beyond just making money.

Consider some examples.

Public Safety

What if you’re offered a job at a company that has many public sector clients in long term contracts and promises interesting work? Their revenue is growing quickly, they’re stable, and are looking for talent to continue to support their clients. You may be willing to work there, but you may want a big piece of that rapidly growing revenue.

What if you’re offered a job that helps police and firefighters save lives every day? What if the only “growth” they’re measuring is the number of lives saved by their software every year? What if you were offered a chance to do good within your community by applying your expertise to help the public be more safe and government run more efficiently? There are benefits here that may offset some need for money.


Consider a company that places contractors in other firms, does some development in house, and generally tries to support the technology companies in the area. It could market itself to millennials as simply having access to lots of employers and lots of opportunities for them.

Do you want to work here? Maybe, but you’d likely find yourself negotiating heavily on pay.

The company could say it’s not like competitors who only worry about butts in seats. However, that only says what the company is not. It doesn’t say what it is.

What if you were approached by a company that wanted to make Detroit (or wherever you live) the greatest city for technology in the world? They do this by finding and developing talent through the use of diverse engagements with many clients that will give technologists the breadth of exposure necessary to be senior contributors and leaders of the future tech hub. By joining the team and building yourself, you’ll also be building the clients and the technical infrastructure needed to revitalize the region.

There’s many reasons to work for such a company, of which money is only one.

Auto Loans

What if you were offered a job at a company that handled loans on used cars for people who have little or bad credit? They may talk about their vast infrastructure, stable business, and loads of deals. You may be willing to work there, but it certainly doesn’t sound great. Time to ask for more money.

What if you were offered a job at a company that believes everyone deserves a second chance? What if they offer auto financing where others can’t (or won’t) in order to make sure everyone has an opportunity to rebuild their lives after bankruptcies or other unfortunate events? Now you may have a cause you can believe in, and the money may be less important.

Custom Software

What if you were offered a contract position at a company that did custom software development and the hiring manager tells you how stable they are, their long list of clients, and their amazing technology? Again, if you’re a millennial you may say “OK”, but you’ll negotiate heavily on cash.

You may respond differently if offered a contract position at a company whose purpose is to bring joy to the world by making software creation a joyful experience for engineers, clients, and the client’s clients. You may be motivated by more than just cash if you can believe in the mission of ending human suffering in the world as it relates to technology.

Part I.5 – My Why

The idea of creating a “why” at the macro for the company can be compelling. However, research points out that the same is true at the micro level for individual contributors.

Even something as simple as letting team members create their own titles (Billy the “Bug Slayer” or Andrew, “Clarity Bringer”) can create a deeper connection between themselves and their work than existed before. The work itself may not change, but how team members understand and explain it does. It may sound silly, but even this small thing can increase work satisfaction by 16%.

Part II – With > For

Millennials are among a growing trend of people who desire to merge much of their work and personal lives. There’s a greater sense of their whole self being both at home and work rather than their work self being at work and home self being at home. Why does this matter?

Millennials tend to prefer team settings to private doing. Even at work, there’s a desire for social and personal connections. This changes the form of leadership from being command and control “do this for me” to an inclusive conversation more akin to “let’s do this together”.


Looking back at our earlier example of the greedy sounding millennial who desperately wants that big paycheck, what else can we do?

Combing what we’ve seen, we have a few approaches:

  1. Make sure there’s a purpose he can cite that can provide motivation outside of cash
  2. Let him craft his own role, which can add purpose and satisfaction that was otherwise lacking
  3. Knowing the financial goal, start a conversation about how it might be obtainable. This doesn’t need to be easy, but as a leader you can offer support and turn what looks like greed into an opportunity t turn that lazy, greedy millennial into someone that can generate as much value for the team as that millennial desperately wants to create

Before you even find yourself confronted by a greedy millennial, take some notes from Dan Ariely. Once a relationship becomes market driven, money is in the drivers seat and it is very hard (if possible) to change that. As much as possible, you want to attract the whole millennial and not the “business” millennial (remember, they want to bring their whole self into it). To attract the whole millennial, you need to have a purpose that transcends cash and which the millennial wants to support.

Don’t complain that millennials seem greedy if your pitch is offering good pay (cash), medical coverage (cash), a healthy business (cash), clients all over the world (cash), bonuses (cash), stock options (cash), 401K match (cash), tuition reimbursement (cash), etc.

If the only reason to work for you is cash (in various forms), that’s what they’ll want from you.


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