The Truth About What Gen Y Really Wants at Work

By September 4, 2013Generations

Guest Post by Mona Berberich

Gen Y at Work

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Sarah is 20 years old. She’s almost done with school but she has no idea what she wants. And that doesn’t really matter because she says society doesn’t offer her the right options at this point. Her mother wants her to take a job at Big Company X. But she’s skeptical. Their products are cool and the pay would allow her to get her first apartment. But she know she wouldn’t have the opportunity to make an impact and perhaps change the world. She dreams about becoming wealthy and famous doing what she loves most, because that’s how Gen Y has been brought up.

Sarah is part of a generation that’s described to have “a notable urgency to make social change” (Washington Post), and their “commitment to altruism signifies a fundamental change” (Forbes). Others call them “narcissistic praise hounds” (CBS News), people who are “cocky about their place in the world” (Time), whose goal is “wealth and fame” (USA Today) which they want to reach “by being lazy, not busy” (Huffington Post).

All of those statements describe Gen Y, a generation that most of the older folks just can’t seem to figure out, and they fit the Millennial Sarah perfectly. The only problem in this anecdote is that Sarah was born in 1950 and she’s my mother. 

What Gen Y Wants at Work

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This brings me to the main point of this article: Sarah shows a striking similarity to what we describe today as a Millennial (yes that would be me). Considering how I behaved when I was 20, the conclusion is that Gen Y isn’t that different from any other generation (please don’t tell my mom that I admit to being like her). In other words, today’s kids are just like their parents and grandparents—in a cool way.

Recall: Being part of a certain generation supposedly makes us attach particular values to different aspects of our life (work, relationship and marriage, society). This notion led many researchers to think that Baby Boomers and Gen X (or Gen Y) have fundamentally different work values, hence there is a large generation gap.

A recent study by Twenge proves all of them wrong. He shows that if we could ask every generation the same questions when they were the same age, at the same stage in life the answers would not differ much. All respondents show similar workplace values. They consider intrinsic values (interesting work, learning opportunities, being challenged) to be the most important, followed by extrinsic (pay, promotions, status) and altruistic (helping others, contributing to society) values. Social (networking, making friends) and leisure (vacation, work-life balance) rewards present the lowest values for all generations.

Twenge’s research is supported by psychologists Kali Trzesniewski and Brent Donnellan whose study has found “little evidence of meaningful change in egotism, self-enhancement, individualism, self-esteem… time spent working or… the importance of social status over the last 30 years.”

So what does that mean? Maybe generation Y isn’t that special (I can say this because I was born 1989). What explains the ongoing misunderstanding in the workplace is the age difference, not the actual generation gap. We were all generation me at one point and teens are more narcissistic than grandmas. We all want to make social change and boycott society at one point. Some of us by playing with one of our 15 Apple devices and by blogging quietly about how Jay Z’s new lyrics inspire us to change the world (even though we didn’t have one job yet). Our rebellion is more quiet than our parents who protested against Vietnam War or our aunts and uncles who danced naked as Hippies, but we’re faster (thanks to the internet and crowdsourcing) and we’re more creative (online of course).

That said, when it comes to generational differences, we might want to stop making them a bigger deal than they actually are. We’re all searching for interesting meaningful jobs that challenge us and give us fulfillment in life. We all want to make millions, ideally without putting that much work into it and yes, supporting our family is important to us (even if we define our friends as family).


Guest Author

Mona BerberichMona Berberich is a Digital Marketing Manager at Better Weekdays, a Chicago-based company that has developed a platform to help HR leaders source, screen and develop talent based on job compatibility. She is a researcher and writer covering HR, career growth, talent management and leadership development. Contact information:  Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.




From time to time, guest writers contribute to Thin Difference. Topics include leadership, career development, creativity, and mindfulness. Our mission is to "Cross the gap and lead with a new story line," inspiring Millennial leaders.

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Mona, just finished a Daniel Pink’s book Drive, The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us and it’s no surprise to you, your mother or all of us that choose to live through our intrinsic values. I agree with you that the one question would unite us under the very values that lift us us as individual contributors to our planet. As a boomer, I still want and work to save the world. Unite teams under strategies with purpose at thier core, as mentioned by Cynthia Montgomery, Head of Strategy Unit at Harvard Business School. Help to build purpose driven companies that create powerful intact teams that function off common values. This may not be widespread, yet, the trend is growing.
    The Gen Y can make a powerful sustainable change in the way the corporate world works and how business is conducted globally by using their strong values to create influence and drive new methods of conduct and leadership in the workplace. The shift is happening. Thank you for such a great thought provoking article.

    • Mona Berberich says:

      Hi David,
      thanks for the great comment. You’re completely right when you say “Unite teams under strategies with purpose at their core”. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Would love to connect! Have a great week!

  • Hiten Vyas says:

    Hi Mona,

    Wonderful post, indeed and Jon, thanks for having Mona over.

    Mona, your post really struck a chord with me, because as you said, there really isn’t that much difference between generations. I think what happens is people in particular generations look at those in others and forget that they also used to engage in similar activities, although the contexts may have varied, yet to contribute to similar causes, and to have similar experiences.

    Thank you.

    • Mona Berberich says:

      Hi Hiten, thanks for your comment! You provided very important insights and I completely agree, we all share similar experiences!
      Have a great week!

  • Terri Klass says:

    You are so right, Mona that each generation is more idealistic at the earlier ages. Working with all 4 generations in organizations, I have begun focusing on ways to work more effectively and collaboratively. That is the key to creating high performance teams. When we are respectful of each person and draw upon the strengths of each team member, we begin to build collaborative workplaces.
    Loved how you introduced the story with your mom!
    Great post!

    • Mona Berberich says:

      Terri, thanks for the nice words! I’m glad you liked it. Respect is the number one requirement for collaborative workplaces – without that – especially when working in teams of people of different generations – teams cannot be successful. Thanks again Terri. Would love to connect!

  • ken witt says:

    I have had the opportunity to work with several of the “millennial” generation. While their hopes, dreams, thoughts, and ideas may be the same as the previous generations, their work ethic and world awareness is not. If you can get them of their smartphone long enough to do something, they will work harder trying to get out of it than it would take to do the job. While they want to change the world, they have no idea whats actually going on in it.

    • Jon M says:

      Thanks for the perspective, Ken. My experience has been different in that regard… very attuned. I guess there is always a mix in any generation.

  • Alli Polin says:

    I agree, Mona. The generations have more in common than not. There has be sooooo much press on what makes us unique that too little attention has been paid to our desire for meaningful work and to and to make a difference.

    • Mona Berberich says:

      You are very right Alli! Thank you for pointing that out. In the end, we’re all the same at different stages in life. Best, Mona

  • Luke Roland says:

    Mona enjoyed your post. I can agree that there probably isn’t much difference between generations…especially when you consider the 60’s with the changes in music, culture, and art. The thing I wonder is if most have a desire to make a difference with their lives, why are there so few that do? Is there a compromise that older generations have made that most millennials will end up making?

    • Mona Berberich says:

      Thanks for the comment Luke! That’s actually a very interesting thought…I guess the circumstances is what makes all of us make compromises at one point in life, but who knows…we have to wait to see what will happen. Have a good one! Mona

  • Well done, Mona! I love your use of data to make your point compellingly and convincingly. As someone who works with millennials as a college instructor – and on the edge of being one myself (depending on who’s defining the cutoff point!) – I absolutely agree with you that the “generational differences” are mostly exaggerated. Older generations always have laments about the “young’ns” of society. That’ll be true when millennials are the old-hands in the workplace, too. I’m glad you’re all searching for meaningful jobs. And as you point about with the effective opener using your mother, this is true for people of all ages.

    • Mona Berberich says:

      thanks for your comment and I’m glad you liked the post! Given your experience, I’m especially happy that you share my thoughts. Do you experience the same preferences of values as a college instructor? Best, Mona

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