Millennials’ Hierarchy of Needs Pt 2: What They Need In A Job

A few weeks ago, I published a piece entitled, Millennials’ Hierarchy of Needs (you should read that first). It was an attempt, based on years of research and cultural immersion, to concisely frame the psyche of the common North American Millennial, the goal of which was to offer more practical insight into the expectations, priorities and motivations that often steer their decisions and dispatch their characters.

One reader suggested that it was generational vanity that drove me to revise the classic theory first introduced by Abraham Maslow in 1943:

“Yet another millennial who thinks his generation is somehow special — better than all the others that came before.”

I can assure you that while an overcompensating ego was likely what put the oak tree up that reader’s ass, it was not what motivated me to update a well-established paradigm through the lens of a single generation. My inspiration was twofold.

First, with the passage of time comes the obligation to adapt; laws need redrafting, brands need rebranding and amendments — some more than others — need amending. As our institutions, our technologies and our intellects shift over time, so too must the instruments we use to understand and nurture those very pillars — especially when the shifts are totally fucking seismic.

The second half of my inspiration, therefore, was the truly distinctive consciousness of Millennials and the undeniable magnitude of their impact on North American culture and commerce. Millennials are now the largest segment of the North American workforce and represent much of the momentum and innovation, and conversely, much of the distraction and obstruction we see in today’s most exciting industries.

If we are going to hire these people, invest in these people, date these people, rely on these people, and be these people, we have to dedicate some thorough, unbiased attention towards a better understanding of how they view the world, what they expect to extract from it, and in what manner they are likely to go about the extraction. Because “special” or not, Millennials are absolutely different.

In the last post, I introduced the revised hierarchy framework through the lens of personal needs:

With an understanding of the “personal” pyramid as the foundation from which Millennials spin off M.O.s in adjacent contexts, I now want to discuss the hierarchy of their professional needs. As a potential employer, investor or colleague, the big question is: What are most North American Millennials looking to obtain from their professional environments and endeavors, and how do they process and prioritize (consciously and subconsciously) their journey towards ultimate professional achievement?

I believe the answer is as follows:

The first thing you’ll notice is that, compared to my original hierarchy, the high level tiers (left margin) and the titles given to articulate their identity within the psychological roadmap are the same. The only structural difference between the personal and the professional pyramids is that the positions of Access and Health have been swapped. This has been done to reflect the generation’s heightened expectation of distinctly-considered “Health” support from their employers, beyond classic benefits, as a near-fundamental right.

Because the professional context is very much a microcosm of life as whole — more and more so because of Millennial influence — the substance of the hierarchy tiers here is conceptually identical to that in the “personal” rendition, but with the core substance of each tier now defined by resources, artifacts and persons specific to the professional and corporate context.

Remember too that much of this is a exercise in the nuance of vocabulary and manner of expression — “what it means” must be balanced with an appreciation for “exactly what it says” and “how it is said”.

Very much like its “personal” counterpart, this tier represents the set of resources, assets and provisions that North American Millennial employees deem necessary for sustainable productivity and confidence that their work efforts will afford them (and their dependents) an adequate amount of safety and living comfort outside of the workplace.

This encompasses most elements of financial, physical and functional support to which this generation has become accustomed; market-fair remuneration, chairs that don’t FUBAR your lumbar, standard ongoing and emergency medical coverage, dedicated onsite space for unobstructed, individual production, and reasonable flexibility for offline production (e.g., Working from home).

While elements of this tier may always be less than optimal, without critical mass here, a Millennial will rarely find renewable motivation to strive for the peak tier as a member of the inadequately supportive firm. Once these types of Maintenance needs have been met at the critical mass (to the individual), the opportunity to comfortably seek fulfillment at the next level is enabled…

As I described in the first installation of this series, Millennials have grown up amidst what can most mildly be described as an unprecedented health “craze”. This generation watched fat-shaming spike to an all-time high and fast-food-fanaticism tank to an all-time low. Everybody and their mothers (including mine — seriously) is certified in homeopathy or naturopathy or has at least scribbled out one recipe for a cold-pressed juice called, “Immuno-Boost”.

Forget “Snakes On a Place”, most Millennials have never seen a cigarette on a plane, and are now co-piloting boozeless “Happy Hours” as they take flight in places like New York and Los Angeles. Over the last decade, the landscape of health and nutrition has evolved to such a degree that not only do Millennials deem its consideration by employers a fundamental responsibility, but a responsibility warranting discrete investment and design.

Support in this tier ranges from basic gym membership subsidies, to on-site wellness centres and rock climbing walls, to coverage for orthotics and acupuncture, all the way to free healthy snacks and fully prepared meals in the cafeteria. Once these types of Health needs have been met at a critical mass (to the individual), the opportunity to comfortably seek fulfillment at the next level is enabled…

Once again, we arrive at the ineffably critical need for the perception of Access. At a tactical level, Millennials must be supplied with an arsenal of technology (and work assignment) that enables geo-variable contribution, rapid research and direct information access, and the efficient production of aesthetically engaging deliverables. At a strategic level, Millennials crave high-level involvement in and exposure to key decision-making processes, as well as visibility before those who conduct them at the most senior levels.

Applications include personal cell phones and laptops, unfettered internet access, invitations to strategy meetings, requests for high level recommendations, and at the broader level, a crisp view of their progress path to substantial prosperity and ongoing leadership engagement. Once these types of Access needs have been met at a critical mass (to the individual), the opportunity to comfortably seek fulfillment at the next level is enabled…

Millennials have no issues performing as part of a unit or being “a team player”. It is not a defiant or selfish drive that feeds the significance of this tier; it is a tenacious craving for self-expression and the broadcasting of contributions that represent the individual and only the individual. Not in the sense that credit cannot not be shared, but in the sense that the individual is provided the freedom in execution and singularity in responsibility to allow for deliverables to carry their distinct mark of character and talent. They are treated and positioned not as a “cog”, so to speak, but as a unique contributor who is known for their special brand of __________.

Satisfaction within this tier can be attained through special assignments, extended opportunities for external-facing interactions, micro/informal leadership delegations, participation in presentations to which they contributed input, inspiration or content, and explicit support in developing unique personal skills and methodologies. Once these types of Self-Representation needs have been met at a critical mass (to the individual), the opportunity to comfortably seek fulfillment at the next level is enabled…

There is no profound way to put this: Millennials tend to love attention. But that is no more a condemnation of superficial attributes than it is a commendation of market value awareness. If there has ever been a generation that comprehends the value of public-facing support, it is Millennials. On the other side of the coin, they also understand the limited reach of private applause, as heart-warming as it may be. Financial bonus, however, is always welcomed in all shapes and forms.

The concept of “Care” is perhaps even more critical. A slight departure from raw recognition, this need is satisfied through explicit displays of genuine interest in the individual’s future value (with or without the current organization) and, much like a relationship between spouses, a protective attitude that simultaneously says, “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you” and “I don’t want anyone else to have you”.

Unlike members of the preceding generation, Millennials, through both guidance and much anecdotal evidence, have grown up with “jumping ship” positioned not as an act of abandonment or risk, but as a smart, strategic career move, as the phrase “do what’s best for you” rings in all their ears at no less than 120 decibels. Remaining an employee of the same company for more than 5 or 6 years is rare for a Millennial in the best of circumstances, and thus, more effort of Care is required from employers with this generation if they hope to keep turnover costs low and talent high.

Note that this tier occurs after significant fulfillment of Access and Self-Representation; without a convincing experience in those preceding tiers, most efforts resembling the expected conduct in this tier will likely be interpreted by the Millennial as inauthentic. Once these Recognition and Care needs have been met at a critical mass (to the individual), the opportunity to comfortably seek fulfillment at the next and final level is enabled…

Having been raised on the digital breast-milk of the omnipresent internet, cloud-based storage, backlinks and nominal storage fees, the prospect of “making a permanent mark” represents the very attainable pinnacle of a Millennial’s professional achievement.

This is the stuff they made from scratch; this is the attitudes, ethics and ideologies they helped permeate through an organization; this is the dog-tagged trail of product and service innovation they left between their desk and every piece of marketing collateral distributed since their departure; from the water cooler to the cash pool, through conversation and concrete commodity, this is the proof of their contribution and the timeless inscription of their value.

At the top of the Millennial’s Hierarchy of Needs is the attainment of a professional Legacy, and it behooves the 21st Century employer to explore ways (creative ones if necessary) in which they can show an explicit appreciation for this goal and a genuine desire to help fulfill it. Once a Legacy is established, well, then the North American Millennial is truly ready for “retirement” — which, in our language, means finally opening up that locally sourced vintage vinyl cocktail bar for surfers who design their own tank tops in Costa Rica. Or something like that..

Originally published at on January 29, 2016.