Do Millenials Need to Get Over Themselves at Work?

Diversity Casual Team Meeting Brainstorming Cheerful Concept

Or, Maslow’s hierarchy and why employers need to get over themselves and provide meaning at work.


  1. There is an increase in people’s expectations and needs for their work to have meaning, and their employers to be doing more for society than increasing the bottom line.
  2. This is not restricted to Gen Y – it increasingly covers all generations, even though it is commonly attributed to Gen Y.
  3. If you want to compete for the best talent, your company will be much more appealing if you have a coherent and credible strategy for contribution.

The Y Generation. Depending which newspaper you read, either a bunch of cosseted and self-absorbed ***ers, or  motivated by altruism with a strong sense of social and environmental responsibility. Which is it? What gives?

My take is that we’re both scapegoating and crediting Generation Y with something that is much broader. Work is increasingly meeting our basic needs and now we’re all asking for more, not just Gen Y. And more, if you buy into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is esteem and self-actualisation.

Which, in today’s money, means we’re all self-absorbed narcissists craving recognition, and with an entirely consistent increased desire to add more to society.

Make of that what you will, but if you’re looking for the best talent, and not just from Generation Y, you’re going to need to ensure that your employees feel that they are contributing to something bigger than just your bottom line with their work.

Let’s pause a second and dig in to Generation Y, and their “issues”. By way of caveat, though, bear in mind that we’re talking about several million people. As a Guardian survey respondent on the generation quipped in a wonderfully NSFW way, “You want me to sum up the main issues facing an entire generation in an entire country? That sounds less scientific than a fucking horoscope, you mad bastards”.

I’m Sagittarius by the way. That makes me superficial. #JustSaying

I’d like to echo that beautifully articulated caveat. It is a nonsense to try to stereotype an entire generation of millions into simple soundbites. But there is a popular theory about Generation Y. It is that Generation Y is a spoilt generation, mollycoddled to complete self-absorption by doting parents, and for that reason, enters the workplace with an overblown view of its own self-importance, which translates to laziness, entitlement and a lack of respect for systems, managers and institutions.

That interpretation would be consistent with Maslow’s popular hierarchy of needs. You’re no doubt familiar with it, but as a refresher, below is Maslow’s first iteration, and you can read more about it and its evolution at McLeod, S. A. (2014), Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow Original

Essentially it’s a hierarchy that says you need to ensure your needs lower down are met before you focus much on ones higher up. For instance, go to someone who is starving and has no roof over their or their children’s heads, and start talking to them about how to make sure their life has meaning, and you’ll probably get short shrift.

With that in mind, we can see how this maps on to the view of the mollycoddled entitlement of Generation Y. With food poverty no longer a wide concern, they’ve been brought up with the lower echelons of their hierarchy of needs largely met, and find themselves entering the workplace seeking new validation for their self-esteem. Social media and Web 2.0 gives them vainglorious opportunity aplenty. But at the same time, they are also increasingly seeking the next step up the hierarchy of needs. That next step is self-actualisation, the feeling that your life has meaning and purpose. Hence their demand that their job has more meaning than simply increasing the bottom line.

So there’s the widely written perspective on Generation Y. And I don’t buy that patronising perspective at all. There is something much broader happening, and that generation is merely one of many participants.

I believe that the search for meaning at work has been gathering pace across all generations. In the so-called developed world, with the occasional hiccup (primarily recessions), we’ve been fairly steadily moving up Maslow’s hierarchy over the last 60 or 70 years. That’s both an outcome and a cause of the evolution of the workplace and our relationship with it.

My parents’ generation generally sought out work to make sure they had shelter and could feed the kids. Some level of assurance that you wouldn’t get killed at work and a fair wage were pretty much the main (arguably only) requirements.

That was far less of an issue in my generation. We started to look at climbing the career ladder more aggressively. By the dawn of the millennium, technology helped as we spawned a fairly self-promotional approach to work, fed by Web 2.0 where we could allblag blog our way to fame. Initially, the bloggers were savants in many fields who genuinely had something of value to say. But in today’s destructive “fake it till you make it” environment, our craving for notice and acclaim is such that the level of noise, especially through social media, is high even if we’re content free (feel free to treat that as an invitation to accuse me of hypocrisy in the comments, but I will argue with you!).

Looks a lot like a search for self-esteem.

Notice me
Tweet: Want to #recruit the best? Stop whinging about #millenials and build values into your company

Fast forward a little, and now we’re increasingly hearing about the need to add meaning at work. As mentioned at the outset, we see plenty of airplay given to the view that it is Generation Y that is increasingly looking for “meaningful work”. But it’s not just Gen Y: I also see it in my generation, Generation X. For many of us, it took us to middle-age to get here. We’ve been working at developing our careers, getting to positions of responsibility (and esteem), and having taken the first half of our careers getting here, are now trying to inject more meaning into it with an increased desire to contribute, and to do it through work.

Sounds a lot like a search for self-actualisation.

This is Maslow’s hierarchy at work, in work. The bar in terms of what we demand from work has simply moved up a level over time.

So no, I don’t believe that Generation Y has an inherently special or unique predisposition to wanting to do good. Nor do I believe them to be an especially self-absorbed generation. I equally don’t buy the adulation given to the generation, such as inthis recent post by Jack Welch. They are a generation, like any other generation, with a multitude of traits across different individuals, but with the tools, environment and context of their time.

The fact that many of my generation are displaying both the narcissist and the altruist ascribed to Generation Y supports this. I don’t think that several million of my generation have gone into a mass spontaneous altruistic midlife crisis. This is a greater reflection of our environment than it is of any generation.

No, the cause is our collective upward shift in general living standards. It’s not a generational thing – it’s a societal one over time.

All of which makes it more real, more broad, and more important for companies looking for success. And that’s of real relevance here for us building businesses. Because if we don’t cater for the full hierarchy, then the best staff will move to where their motivations are better satisfied.

What does that mean practically? It means looking explicitly at each level, and evaluating whether you’re genuinely filling those needs. Or, in my preferred model because I’m a fan of hiring people who take ownership and responsibility for their careers, it means evaluating whether you’re providing the opportunity within your organisation for those needs to be fulfilled.

I find it useful to map each level of the hierarchy to a workplace equivalent as in the diagram below – physiological to pay; safety to safety; love and belonging to community; esteem to platform and; self-actualisation to meaningful work.

Maslow for work

Starting at the bottom, ‘Pay’ and ‘Safety’ are fairly self-explanatory. But as we continue upwards to ‘Community’, the question to ask is how much of a feeling of belonging do your employees have to your organisation and to each other?

In my previous role this was a real issue. I led a large team of consultants, who by virtue of job requirements, were more often on client site than in our own office. Many of them, especially those on long-term assignment, naturally felt like they ‘belonged’ more to the client with whom they worked on a daily basis than to our consultancy. This led in many instances to what consultancies commonly call “going native” – the phenomenon where the consultant behaves more like an employee of the client than a consultant who is paid handsomely in order to provide disproportionate value.

To combat this, every 6 weeks or so, we pulled them off client work and into our community days, where they took part in self-organising sessions for sharing knowledge. But this was also very explicitly about refreshing the links and reinforcing our feeling of belonging with each other. So strong were the bonds we built that our reunions, several years on, still have many dozens of us turning out for a drink.

Moving again up the hierarchy to ‘Platform’, the question is do you provide your employees with a platform for growth, including exposure internally or externally if they seek it? We got in early on blogging, before it was a ‘thing’. More than almost anything else we did, it created a platform for our excellent and talented consultants to demonstrate their experience and expertise to the world.

That, in turn, formed a small part of the platform provided by our full career development plans. We integrated these into our consultants’ daily work by moving their creation and oversight into our operations team. By placing it within our scheduling team rather than HR, it meant that the team that scheduled daily work for our consultants had full visibility and use of career plans. This gave career development far more realistic actualisation than making them purely an annual stochastic exercise.

And at the top of the hierarchy, does your work provide your employees with meaning? With one of my clients, we have developed a model where we further their team’s skills, engage in R&D, and give up and coming team members leadership opportunities while simultaneously delivering projects to small charities in a way that is far more valuable than any donation. So we’ve embedded their value of contribution (and meaning) into their R&D and development plans, making it an exercise that will also give them a financial benefit as they can utilise the skills and intellectual capital created on fee-earning engagements.

This is the model that we’re engaging in with our clients at Inspired Indie. How to embed the full hierarchy of today’s enlightened employee’s needs into the organisation in such a way that it provides fulfilment and enjoyment to everyone, improves the company’s long-term financial performance, and simultaneously contributes positively to its community and causes that the company and its employees feel strongly about.

My discussion is based largely on opinion and anecdote. But even if you disagree with it (and I’d love to have that debate), my recommendation will stand. If we can find a way to cater for all levels of the hierarchy for the people we work with, then that will make for a better work environment, and one that attracts and retains the best talent.


As I was finishing off writing this in the highly professional environment of the Sun Inn pub in Richmond, a young couple came and sat next to me. “What are you doing?” asked the young man, probably mid twenties, and betraying his Americanness with a willingness to strike up conversation with a complete stranger rather than awkwardly sitting nearby in determined and rigid isolation (have I just given away my views on Brexit?). I resisted my British inclination to give a closed two word answer to curtail the conversation, and actually told him what I was writing about.

It turns out that this Gen Y man was just talking about this very thing with his Gen Y girlfriend – the lack of meaning in his work. I asked what he did. He works at Tesla. The company which makes beautiful and powerful cars which also happen to be electric. A company that makes an environmentally good product in the midst of an industry which is clogging up our planet.

Yet the company that has found a way to make doing good a core part of how it makes money had clearly not connected viscerally to this employee. You’d have thought there would be a fairly easy way for Tesla to cover all bases here. I’d have loved to chat more with him and find out whether Tesla failed to connect to him, or whether the company had provided opportunities which for whatever reason he’d failed to pick up. But we were unceremoniously turfed out by the bar staff as the pub closed.

Maybe one day I’ll talk to Tesla about it. If they give away cars for conversations.

We’re creating articles to cover some of the biggest challenges facing consultancies and agencies today. Tell us the biggest challenge YOUR consultancy faces today, and as a thank you, we’ll offer you a half hour chat about this (or anything else we learned along the way to creating a £42m consultancy / agency).

Share this article

You're among friends. Any other ideas or feedback on this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.