Why isn’t Gen Y motivated by money? Because they (we) don’t know any better.

Everywhere you turn online there is a new article covering the topic of how to motivate Gen Y at work, and in almost every one you will find the staple quote touting how “Gen Y isn’t motivated by money.”

As a proud member of Gen Y who fits most of the demographic stereotype to a T, this is the one big area where I diverge. I just happen to be VERY motivated by money, and this statement always leaves me more than perplexed.

For a generation inundated with gold stars, competitive peers and relentless ambition, this generalization just doesn’t add up for me or any of my colleagues who also fall into my same age bracket and pay their own bills. Money is just one of many factors we have grown up to understand signifies the value a company attributes to us as individuals, and I can’t even imagine how much harder we would work if ever told that a peer of ours takes home X% more every two weeks than we do. Talk about motivation. But do the dollars themselves actually motivate us?

We have grown up in a world of “fair” while also being raised by doting helicopter parents. While that usually implies that they have spent our entire lives hovering over our every move and purposely influencing decisions made each day, that also means they pulled the purse strings and managed the budget that funded our lives all along the way.


Money isn’t motivating to us (and to the stereotyping or generalization police out there, I am referring to the average, middle-class Gen Y’er and I’m aware it doesn’t apply to everyone) because, quite simply, we’ve always had it.

It’s an afterthought – an assumed thing that doesn’t drive our life quality or decisions. It doesn’t rank in our top motivators because our boomer parents worked their asses off to provide it for us. They never wanted us to have to go through what their parents, many of whom suffered through the Great Depression, put them through in terms of “Don’t you dare turn on the AC unless it’s over 90” frugality.

They, in the most “loving” way they know how, want us to have it all – and we do. From trust funds to co-managed bank accounts with mysterious deposits dropping through any time our account balance hovers near zero, our parents have always taken care of it all.

And now, with the oldest of our generation just entering their late twenties, the truth is beginning to rear its ugly little budget-handicapped head.


A recent University of Michigan study found that only 27% of 23 to 28 year-olds, the oldest of Gen Y, are able to perform simple interest rate calculations, or grasp concepts like inflation or risk diversification. And a recent retail consulting firm study found that only 28% of Gen Yers purchased less in 2009 than prior years due to the economic downturn. If you don’t have stocks in the crapper and you pay no rent by living with your parents, as the Census Bureau reports approximately 50% of all 18 to 24 year-olds did in 2008, then why should your spending habits have to change?

That mindset is scary for America, but scarier for those of us in that demographic who already are 100% financially independent from their parents, and are the first of what promises to be hundreds in our generation realizing that money really IS a motivating factor. By the time we all catch the clue bus, it might be too late.


As this downturn has continued to promote drastic corporate cost cutting, excusing the silly grins plastered to CFO’s faces from massive labor cost savings just as Microsoft’s CFO Chris Lidell wore last fall while stating “never waste a good crisis,” a day will come when these lower salaries are the norm and will remain that way. Corporations will have been trained by Boomer-funded Gen Y’ers that all we need is a salary – no matter what that salary is – a flexible work environment, online training and some volunteer programs, and we are good to go. We look like, and are, a steal to them – ambitious multi-taskers who will work 24/7 for wages reminiscent of 1992.

Please understand, I’m not saying our entire generation is causing this by allowing their parents to help out every once in awhile. But what I am saying is statistics don’t lie. And everything in this life is ends up being ironically cyclical, doesn’t it?

We are striving so hard to move up the corporate ladder, to achieve more than our peers and those who came before us quicker and faster than anyone has ever done before, but we need Boomers to finally retire before those slots we so desperately yearn to fill are available. Yet, once those Boomers retire, many of whom are funding the 50% of Gen Y still living at home, the cash cow funding the idealistic, money=low priority mentality will be no more. And all that will be left is new standard, the expectation now set with corporations of our generation’s low need for financial reward in our career. Awesome.

If our generation’s spending continues at a pace 5X than that of our parents at the same age and $5/day coffee continues to rank as a need equal to electricity and water, we can kiss disposable income for things like travel goodbye.

All I know is I continue to rank money quite high on my list of motivators in my career. Call me greedy, but I call it realistic. I love what I do, but I love more what I’m enabled to do when I’m not at wrk.


Many Gen Y’ers who have come before me and will continue to come after at my large corporation might make me look like one money-grubbing bee-otch, but I will continue to press on to ensure my compensation remains at a level equal to my performance – no more and no less. I don’t feel entitled, but I’m certain I am and should continue to be valued. I’m smart. I inspire new concepts into action. And I’m a thought-leader. Regardless of my age or generational designation, that makes me valuable.

Keeping your perspective in check is important when it comes to compensation and responsibility, and I constantly do that for myself to ensure I don’t let my generational tendencies, specifically impatience, get the best of me. What those before you have gone through is an important process to understand, accept and follow 80% of the time while evaluating “what could we, as an organization, do better and do I have that X-factor that makes me uniquely qualified to help us achieve it?”

The 20% exception to the 80/20 rule should be about exactly that – your personal X-factor. I have that. Many of us do – and I would guess an even larger percentage of a group reading blogs like this and active in learning from their social network peers fall into that X-factor-possesing category. But here’s the difference – what are you using that X-factor for?

Noble causes are exactly that, and I praise you for it. But nowhere does it say that has to happen in conjunction with your work. Personally, I’m don’t spend 60 hours a week fighting the battle for use of fewer styrofoam cups, or for more online training – it continues to be about responsibility and compensation, and the overall betterment of the culture in which we spend most of our awake hours. And for all of those, I will continue to fight.


To be clear for all Gen Yers who are reading this thinking “This is crap – volunteering IS very important to our generation, as is training and learning, you selfish bee-otch,” you are right. But why be lazy? Yes, I said it, lazy.

Why let your company give you those things that you yourself could get any number of places outside of work, while work is one of the ONLY places that can give you what you need financially?

Join a volunteer organization, participate in free local training through marketing or web development non-profit groups in your community. If you can get that all at work – fantastic, and I envy you. But for the majority, don’t think for a second your organization plans to give you the very, very best of both worlds for the duration of your career. Something must eventually suffer, and probably already is, so chose your priorities wisely. It is completely up to you.

In parallel to my ongoing fight for my personal career priorities, I will continue to thank my parents for cutting me off at a young age and allowing me to make financial missteps on my own. Sooner than later. The lessons learned through those experiences are what have trained me to know and understand why certain parts of my budget are important for me and for my family, and thus why I must continue to persist in tugging on the proverbial pant-leg of those who control my financial future.

Whether as a kindergartener in the late 80’s or a mid-level female manager at a large corporation today, the gold stars on my chart better keep on coming. And I intend to make sure they do so. 



3 thoughts on “Why isn’t Gen Y motivated by money? Because they (we) don’t know any better.

  1. tbisaacs says:

    I’m with you – I can’t think of anything more motivating than financial gain. My perception is that many folks my age are more concerned about having Guitar Hero and Redbull in the office than a lucrative bonus/equity/profit share structure. You should do what you love, but making money at it is ok to.Excellent post, Sarah!

  2. Sarah Kennedy Ellis says:

    Thanks, Travis! And I know I lay it on thick about focusing on compensation, but your point about doing what you love I’m sure I don’t emphasize enough. That is so very important and should always be an individual’s first consideration in any job – I guess my post discusses what should come into play right after you find it. 🙂 …Getting paid what you are really worth to do what you truly love… and thus what you are likely amazing at, every day. Thanks again.

  3. Marcelo Somers says:

    Great post – I really enjoyed it.As a Gen-Y’er a few years earlier int he demographic than you, what really stood out to me was the point about the balance between ensuring you’re compensated fairly and not being impatient. So often I am ready to jump over "legacy" or "old," but in reality it’s about accepting that 80% of the time, people have been there, done that, and really do know better – but also knowing when that other 20% comes into play and you have to let your X Factor shine.Hopefully that is a skill developed over time, and I think what is great is that eventually we will be that 80% who is experienced, and probably faster than past generations with Gen X not being able to completely replace the Boomers – opening the door for us Gen Y’ers to shine earlier in our careers.

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