Young adults on the job--different motivations, different goals

Motivating young adults at work needs a new approach

Posted Nov 09, 2010

Women at work at the Lever House on Park Avenue in 1952. Today, young women in N

Women at work at the Lever House on Park Avenue in 1952. Today, young women in New York are earning more than men. (Photo: Corbi

There's a lot of room for disconnect over this topic because we approach work like we approach many things in life--from a certain frame of reference. And with work, that frame of reference boils down to motivations. What motivates you to show up and do your job every day? Speak to those motivations and you will understand how to get the best out of someone. In his new book, Daniel Pink, a Wired contributing editor, got me thinking that different motivations might be at the bottom of why older workers so often complain about this generation. Perhaps older workers are using their own frame of reference and their own set of motivating tricks with this young generation, and they're just falling on deaf ears.

Pink, in fact, has unearthed some surprising insights about what motivates us at work in "Drive" (Riverhead Press, 2009). He digs back through decades of behavioral science and finds that, lo and behold, carrots and sticks are less effective in motivating workers in the 21st century.  Instead, he argues, what spurs us on are those intrinsic things about work--like autonomy (the ability to choose what and how tasks are completed), mastery, and purpose (in this case, the desire to improve the world).

Perhaps this is why older adults feel so bewildered when they encounter  this generation at work. We old heads are starting from a different idea about work and our position in it.

Pink's findings might just point to a significant shift in how young people (and all of us to a degree) think about work. We heard over and over again in our interviews for "Not Quite Adults" that young adults today want to make a difference in their job, whether that be as part of a team or bigger-picture: working for a company that can change the world for the better. They want to matter, and they want to find meaning in their work. Those are all intrinsic satisfactions. Sure they like their paychecks, but it's not only about that (if it ever was).

They're also a different kind of worker. They're more collaborative, more intent on team-building--this is how they've been learning in school for years now, after all. Another twist on collaboration is that a top-down hierarchy of bosses and underlings is foreign to them. It's not that they're spoiled. It's just that taking orders just because someone is older doesn't make sense to them. Blame the internet.

Kids today came of age online, and online worlds have lowered the barriers to entry. If you can prove your chops, anyone can be an expert online. Age doesn't matter. Ten-year-olds on World of WarCraft can give advice to 40 years olds, and no one blinks. Expertise, not age, matters. The anonymity of the web and its sheer reach allows anyone at any age or "status" to geek out and get good at something and then become the resident expert on the message boards or online chat rooms. There is no "sage on the stage" dictating and lecturing online as there is in a classroom, say, or in the conference room. You prove yourself in a big, messy, noisy (faceless) online world.

This generation has also been raised in very adult worlds. When I was a kid, I sat at the top of the stairs in my pajamas spying from afar on the adults at my parents' parties. Today's kids are invited in. They are comfortable with adults. There is less separation between the adult world and their own.

In addition, parents have supervised their kids' lives much more. Kids are, in other words, immersed early on in adult worlds. They no longer see adults as Oz behind the curtain, to be feared and to be a little bit in awe of.

This can all be "profoundly unsettling to mature workers comfortable with a more linear work style," say Michael Costonis and Rob Salkowitz in a guest column.  Costonis is executive director of Accenture's insurance practice in North America and Salkowitz is the author of "Young World Rising."

[speaking of linear work styles, Pink has an intriguing blog about the demise of linear thinking at work.]

Another thing digital media has done for young adults is begin to remove the fear of failure -- or at least redefine it. Bear with me on this--it's a bit of a thought experiment here. There's a notion in Silicon Valley of "fast failure" and young people have perhaps begun to absorb this model themselves.  In that model,  a number of different players are all working on a project, and the organism is growing and adapting. Some ideas succeed, some fail. But the idea is to fail sooner when you're on a bad path so you can get on the right path. You need to be able to recast, and pivot on a dime. 

This feedback loop and fast iterative process is critical to the success of a project. No one is a hoarder of an idea anymore. In this model, the pressure of "failure" is erased because the idea of failure as we know it is disappearing, replaced by a sense that if an idea or a project doesn't work, you start over quickly and redo. It isn't as costly as it once was to fail because the system of producing or innovating itself is more nimble. You never get so far in that you can't dig out and start over quickly.

Thus, with failure less costly, the "sticks" in the carrot-and-stick method of motivating that Pink notes no longer carry as much weight.  Big deal if you fail--so long as you continue to contribute and innovate as part of a team. In fact, in nimble companies, failure (and adapting) is rewarded not sanctioned. So it makes sense that the traditional "sticks" won't be as effective if the carrot has changed.

Given all these emerging ways of learning and doing, it makes sense that we must adapt our motivators,  and those motivators are not just tangible or intangible incentives. They also include older workers hoping to get the best out of a younger generation.

It's all food for thought. Rather than complaining about young adults and their different ways of working, perhaps we older workers should take a look at ourselves and ask whether our way of working is contributing to the friction. No doubt certain things just need to be done and aren't intrinsically motivating or satisfying. In fact, a lot of work is darned dull. Those tasks are probably still effectively motivated by incentives like bonuses or a better cubicle. But even there, I bet we could learn something from doing things in a different way and reward and motivating in a different way.