The Motivation of Generation Y Employees at Work and Its Implications for Managers

Table of Content


Millennial, Echo Boomers, Generation Y (Gen Y), and Nexters are some of the descriptors used to identify and label the newest generational cohort entering the workforce (Dulin, 2008). Gen Y workers have become a stronger and larger group in the workplace with more than 29 million members entering the workforce in the last seven years (Martin & Tulgan, 2001). By aligning Gen Y employees’ personal needs to corporate needs, managers and leaders will be able to attract and retain Gen Y workers while developing flexible and varied managerial behaviours (Eisner, 2005). The needs of Gen Y workers appeared to be different than preceding generations in many ways: Gen Y are more numerous, in numbers, than Baby Boomers, perceived as more ambitious than the so-called Generation Xers, and more technology-knowledge than any of their predecessors. With more than 29 million members who have entered the workforce for the past seven years, Gen Y workers have become a stronger and larger group in the workplace (Lancaster ; Stillman, 2003).

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The purpose of this paper is to explore the motivational characteristics of Gen Y, their impact in the workplace and implications for managers. Because younger workers differ in their approaches to organisational life, it is important for managers to understand and deal with this generational challenge so that organisations may be successful in the 21st century (Kunreuther, 2003). Thus, effectively managing and retaining Gen Y workers are crucial requirements toward the success of many organisations as managers try to gain a competitive edge. (Smola ; Sutton, 2002). First, the paper will start with the description of Generation Y, its characteristics and what differs it from the other generations. In the second section, some major motivation theories will be reviewed. Finally, the implication of the motivation of generation Y will be identified for managers.

Generation Y at Workplace

Generational Profiles at Work

Presently, there are four generations in the workplace, the youngest of which is Gen Y. The generational units offered by Eisner (2005) and Raines (2003) are: Veterans, born before 1945; Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964; Gen X, born 1965-1979; and Gen Y, born after 1980. Despite some variations in the way the literature names and classifies start and end dates (i.e., Gen Y end dates of 1977); there is a general descriptive consensus among academics and practitioners regarding these generations (Eisner, 2005).

For many, managing a flourishing workforce containing the retired Veterans, retiring Boomers, Generation Xers, and newly entering Nexters will be a challenge. Kyles (2005) provided the following summary of the challenge facing the four generations:

The Silent Generation (Veterans)-the 10% of the workforce born before 1945 (Population: 75 million)-has begun their gradual exit from the workforce. Veterans take with them immeasurable amount of skill, knowledge, and wisdom, as two experienced workers exit the workforce for every new one over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers-the 46% born between 1946 and 1964 (Population: 80 million)-are becoming the aging workforce. Everyday, 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 55 years of age. Moreover, Generation X (the 29% born between 1965 to 1979-Population: 46 million) and Generation Y (the 15% born after 1980–Population: 75 million) are fast becoming the dominant players in the prime age workforce. (p. 52)

Characteristics of Generation Y Employees

Gen Y began entering the workplace during the summer of 2000. Gen Y, born after 1980, is 81 million strong, comprising 30% of the current United States population (Dulin, 2008). With a very focused and involved Boomer parents, Gen Y grew up with busy schedules—sports, music lessons, and scheduled play-dates occupying much of their time. Gen Y has always had input in family decisions because their parents constantly communicated with them (Lancaster ; Stillman, 2003).

Gen Yers are independent, techno-savvy, and entrepreneurial employees who thrive on flexibility (Martin, ; Tulgan, 2001). In their book entitled Managing Generation Y: Global Citizens Born in the Late Seventies and Early Eighties, Martin and Tulgan listed the following as the truths about Gen Y:

1.         A generation of new confidence, upbeat and full of self-esteem;

2.         The most education minded generation in history;

3.         A generation paving the way to a more open, tolerant society;

4.         A generation leading a new wave of volunteerism.

In the workplace, Gen Y appears to be more idealistic than Generation X, but a little bit more realistic than Baby Boomers. Global communication and access to instant information via the World Wide Web have influenced the beliefs and expectations of Gen Y and has directly transform Gen Y’s attitudes toward work, work ethics, values, job expectations, and overall job satisfaction (Martin & Tulgan, 2001). Lancaster & Stillman (2003) noted that the scope Gen Y’s potential impact is still being studied as they have begun entering the workforce.

Martin and Tulgan (2001) provided the following guidelines to help managers better manage Gen Y employees:

1.         Provide challenging work that really matters;

2.         Balance clearly delegated assignments with freedom and flexibility;

3.         Offer increasing responsibility as a reward for accomplishment;

4.         Spend time getting to know staff members and their capabilities;

5.         Provide on going training and learning opportunities;

6.         Establish mentoring relationships;

7.         Create comfortable, low-stress environment;

8.         Allow some flexibility in scheduling;

9.         Focus on work, but be personable and have a sense of humour;

10.       Balance the roles of “boss” and “team player”;

11.       Treat Yers as colleagues, not as interns or “teenagers”;

12.       Be respectful, call forth respect in return;

13.       Consistently provide positive feedback;

14.       Rewards Yers when they’ve done a good job (p. 63).

World events that shaped Gen Y worldview include the Tsunami and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. However, perhaps what best defines Gen Y at this stage in their lives is their comfort and familiarity with technology—the Internet. Born into a wired world, Gen Y is able to adapt effortlessly to advancements and have always known the Internet, computers, cell phones, VCRs, laser surgery, and genetic engineering (Smola & Sutton, 2002).

Motivation Theories

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory

For half a century, Maslow’s classic theory has fuelled research on motivation and has been a cornerstone of many motivational studies. Maslow posits that when a lower need is fulfilled, it is no longer motivational and a higher need takes its place (Wagner ; Hollenbeck, 2001). In brief, Maslow proposed five distinct types of needs that motivate human behaviour: physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualisation. Physiological needs are the hierarchy’s lower needs such as hunger and thirst while safety needs are second-level which relate to the acquisition of objects/relationships that protect their possessor from future threats. In addition, love needs are third-level which include the need for family and friendships while esteem needs are fourth-level which include respect, feeling of appreciation, and self-esteem. Finally, self-actualisation is the top-level and is defined as the person’s desire to realise his or her full potential (Wagner ; Hollenbeck, 2001).

Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory

Herzberg developed the motivator/hygiene theory or two-factor theory. Herzberg began his research in the mid-1950s by surveying 200 engineers and accountants for framework around their motivators (Wagner ; Hollenbeck, 2001). By combining his findings with other researchers using different frameworks, Herzberg developed a model of motivation on the assumption that factors eliciting job satisfaction and motivation are independent from those producing job dissatisfaction.

The two-factor theory assumes that factors producing job satisfaction (motivators, or intrinsic rewards) differ from those producing job dissatisfaction (hygiene factors, or extrinsic rewards). The motivators are “achievement, recognition for achievement, the work itself, responsibility, and growth or advancement” (Herzberg, 1968, p. 91-92). The hygiene or dissatisfaction-avoidance factors, which are extrinsic to the job, include “company policy and administration, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status, and security” (Herzberg, 1968, p. 92). Herzberg concluded that removing hygiene factors did not guarantee employee satisfaction, but simply brought peace within an organisation and does not motivate employees. Satisfaction is only increased with motivators, suggesting job roles should be redefined to increase recognition, responsibility, achievement, and advancement.

Vroom’s Expectancy Theory

Vroom examined motivation in the perspective of why individuals choose to follow a particular course of action. Vroom’s expectancy theory, or VIE theory include three major components: Valence—the amount of satisfaction that an individual achieves, receiving from a particular outcome; Instrumentality—a person’s subjective belief about the relationship between performing a behaviour and receiving an outcome; Expectancy—a person’s belief regarding the link between one’s efforts and his or her performance (Wagner & Hollenbeck, 2001).

Vroom suggested that a worker’s beliefs about VIE interact psychologically to create a motivation force resulting in the following formula: [Motivation = Valence x Expectancy (Instrumentality)]. In addition, Vroom noted that motivation is based on unique individual factors such as personality, skills, knowledge, experience, and abilities (Wagner ; Hollenbeck, 2001).

The Main Motivation of Generation Y Employees at Work

Eisner (2005) discussed the relationship of motivation and Gen Y cohort. The article provided strategies on effectively managing Gen Y in the workplace. Eisner stated that Gen Y workers are focused on self-development and are goal oriented. The author concluded that Gen Y is a valuable asset to an organisation since they have characteristics that made them easier to manage than Generation X employees.

Furthermore, Logue (2007) discussed the philanthropic-motivations and attitudes of the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Gen Y workers. Logue explained that Gen Y cohort could be generous with time and money while Generation X cohort is sceptical about fund raising. Similarly, Weiler (2005) explored the relationship of motivation and information-seeking behaviours on Gen Y students. Weiler searched for possible motivating factors behind the younger student’s dependence on television and the Internet for information needs. Weiler found only a small percentage of the general population prefers to learn by reading.

To examine the leadership needs of Generation Y cohort, Dulin (2008) conducted a focused group interview to a local community college in United States. Subsequently, Dulin used the themes derived from the qualitative research and surveyed three universities. Dulin noted that “future validation studies should address rewording of problematic items and perhaps develop additional or replacement that more adequately reflect the latent variables or themes” (p. 51).

All three motivation theories discussed are effective in explaining workers’ motivational needs. However, Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory is the best to be applied to Gen Y because of its ability to stimulate interest in question of motivation, satisfaction, and work design. Herzberg highlighted the importance of designing jobs that satisfy higher order needs for growth, achievement, and recognition (Wagner & Hollenbeck, 2001). Herzberg argued that both factors were equally important, but management must enrich the content of the actual work to truly motivate employees. Today’s managers must look at both hygiene and motivator factors to truly motivate Gen Y employees. Both hygiene and motivator factors were important to Gen Y members. However, personal life and growth needs emerged as top motivator and hygiene factors.

Implications for Managers

Effectively motivating Gen Y is one of a manager’s top duties. Thus, there are many ways to motivate workers, and it is just a matter of finding the right factors that suit an individual. To meet Gen Y growth needs, managers can challenge Gen Y workers with unique learning opportunities and assignments (i.e., trying “new” projects). Gen Y members thrive with new challenges and opportunities. Similarly, to meet Gen Y’s quest for a balance between personal and professional life (or work-life balance), managers can utilised programs such as flexible working hours and travel incentives as a way to motivate younger workers. Gen Y cohort strongly adheres to the ideology of “work to live” instead of “live to work” as their previous generational cohort had (Eisner, 2005). Employers can tailor work-life programs to better serve Gen Y workers.

What strategies can managers provide to strengthen job satisfaction of Gen Y employees? The following strategies can help managers strengthen job satisfaction:

1)        Support work/life balance in the workplace – Gen Y clearly believed that their professional life was just as important as their professional life. Potential work/life programs include, but is not limited to, fitness facilities/discount membership, education/training opportunities, flexible working arrangements, family leave policies, and childcare/eldercare programs. Managers and leaders can motivate Gen Y employees by advocating work/life policies/programs in the workplace.

2)        Provide Gen Y workers with opportunities to grow in their job – Growing in one’s career was important to Gen Y. Managers can provide Gen Y with challenging work as their skill and knowledge progressed.

3)        Create working conditions suited for Gen Y – A safe, comfortable working environment mattered to Gen Y workers. Managers must clearly articulate safety and fun at work to employees. Having a fun and comfortable working environment can greatly motivate Gen Y cohort.

4)        Create a fair salary/compensation package – Salary was an important motivation to Gen Y. Having a fair salary/compensation structure is an important tool in ensuring Gen Y’s motivational needs are met (i.e., pay for performance program).

It is essential for managers and leaders to tailor their managerial needs to effectively and better motivate/manage Gen Y members. Having a flexible, adaptable approach can help managers better understand and motivate this emerging cohort. Next, managers must understand the basic trait of Gen Y— independent, collaborative, techno-savvy, and multitasking workers. Gen Y members want meaningful/challenging work that let them grow on their jobs. Likewise, Gen Y workers value the importance of balancing their personal and professional lives. Leaders and managers who understand Gen Y needs of growth and work/life balance will gain the competitive edge of an organisation, increase recruitment and retention, and ultimately create a stronger organisation.


Bridging the generation gap between cohorts is vital if organisations are to thrive in the future. The majority of leaders in organisations overlook generational diversity. (Dulin, 2008). Nevertheless, understanding generational diversity will improve the competitive edge of an organisation, increase recruitment, and retention, and ultimately create a stronger organisation. Conversely, intergenerational conflict can have a catastrophic impact on morale and productivity, and it has the potential to lead to EEO complaints and lawsuits. Becoming familiar with and understanding the emerging workforce should be a priority for both researchers and practitioners.


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Eisner, S. P. (2005, Autumn). Managing generation Y. S.A.M Advanced Management Journal, 70(4), 4-15.

Herzberg, F. (1968, January/February). One more time: How do you motivate employees? Harvard Business Review, 8 (1), 87-96.

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Kunreuther, F. (2003). The changing of the guard: What generational differences tell us about social-change organizations? Nonprofit and Volunteer Sector Quarterly, 32(3), 450-457.

Lancaster, L. C. ; Stillman, D. (2003). The generational gap at work. The Worklife Report, 14(4), 20.

Logue, A. C. (2007, May/June). The baby bloomers. Currents, 33 (5), 32-37.

Martin, C. A., ; Tulgan, B. (2001). Managing Generation Y: Global citizens born in the late seventies and early eighties. Amherst: HRD Press.

Raines, C. (2003). Connecting generations: The sourcebook for a new workplace. Menlo Park: Crisp Publications.

Smola, K. W., ; Sutton, C. D. (2002). Generational differences: Revisiting generational work values for the new millennium. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 363-382.

Wagner, J. A., ; Hollenbeck, J. R. (2001). Organizational behavior: Securing a competitive advantage. Forth Worth: Harcourt College Publishers.

Weiler, A. (2005, January). Information-seeking behavior in Generation Y students: Motivation, critical thinking, and learning theory. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 37(1), 46-53.


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The Motivation of Generation Y Employees at Work and Its Implications for Managers. (2016, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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