The Challenge of Engaging Millennial Customers and Employees (and Keeping Them Engaged!)

A great deal has been written about engaging Millennials, much of it focusing on social media, buying habits, and using technology to keep up with their fast-paced, short-attention-span style. Despite sinking a lot of attention and money into these strategies, many leaders feel dissatisfied with the results, since these approaches don’t directly address the values and motives that drive Millennials.

Put simply,most organizations are uninteresting to Millennials.As they age and constitute more of the labor pool and market buying power, this situation will only get worse: Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce in many countries by 2020, and 75% of the global workforce by 2025.

Having grown up in a digital age, Millennials are better adapted to a rapidly evolving, technologically connected world than the companies they work for. And more importantly, the traditional methods that companies use to attract and retain talent are less likely to work on Millennials. For example, they place more importance on meaningful work than on high pay or a sense of accomplishment. Even the most cleverly designed compensation packages and employee recognition programs are going to be less effective at motivating Millennials, and the opportunity to climb the corporate ladder may be entirely uninteresting to them.

A desire for a stable work situation isn’t that motivating to Millennials, either: 30% started their own company while still in college, and 43% feel extremely or very confident that they could find another job if they lost or left their current one.

If Millennials don’t care about most of the traditional things employers provide, what do they care about?

In short, they want their lives to make a difference. They show this focus in their relationships with causes and non-profits. According to “The Millennial Impact Report”, they observed the following patterns:

  • Three-quarters of Millennials gave to a non-profit.
  • 71% raised money for a non-profit.
  • 57% volunteered time to work for a non-profit.
  • Three-quarters evangelized to their friends about a non-profit on social media.

Millennials’ attention is focused squarely on the top level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, called “self-actualization.” This includes learning, personal development, and making a difference in the lives of others. Self-actualization is measured in meaning and fulfillment, rather than achievement and results.

Traditionally, most companies have done an absolutely terrible job at meeting employees’ self-actualization needs. Business leaders are accustomed to focusing on safety and esteem in their engagement strategies: money provides safety, and recognition, titles and perks fulfill esteem needs.

In prior generations, the need for meaning and purpose generally didn’t hit until mid-life. Our work contract was a delayed gratification arrangement, in which we satisfied our lower-level needs, while accumulating enough resources to retire. Retirement, at least in theory, was when self-actualization needs would become primary.

But with Millennials’ immediate demands for purpose and meaning, the traditional arrangement is defunct. If your organization is determined to stick with the old approach, despite the clear warning signs,you can expect high turnover and an aging, increasingly disengaged workforce .

To make matters worse, Generation X is reaching the age when people traditionally begin to think about meaning, legacy and fulfillment. (The Baby Boomers who are still working are there already.) This means that business leaders are facing a “perfect storm” of disengagement, a sudden and simultaneous lack of ability to motivate anyone, no matter their age or experience level.

Fortunately, the solution has already been identified: you must lead and operate your company in service to a higher purpose.

What is a “higher purpose?” Simply put, it is your clear, high-level strategy for making the world a better place. Think non-profit mission: feed the children, heal the environment, save the whales. It is not your strategy to make more money or, sell more products and services. Which means that most companies’ “mission statements” fail miserably.

Business thought leaders have published a multitude of books, articles and research on the ROI of finding your organizational purpose, though many executives have ignored them. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to earn a profit for your shareholders by making the world a better place in some very specific, concrete way. By doing so, you put yourself in a position to attract and engage Millennials, as well as to retain older top talent, who are reaching the age when these things matter more to them.

Not all purpose statements will work, though. Motivation and engagement are emotional experiences, not logical ones, so a purpose that doesn’t generate emotion is useless.You can wrack your brain, individually or collectively, for years without coming up with anything good. In my experience working with organizations large and small in various industries to help them find their organizational purpose, there are two ways to come up with a really powerful one.

The first and most common way is some kind of personal epiphany.Unfortunately, waiting for one to occur is hardly an efficient process.

The other process is a kind of guided inquiry, in which a group of people is led through a series of steps to gain greatly increased access to their intuition – the only reliable source of the kind detailed and specific information that will attract and retain clients and customers. The resulting purpose is almost always extremely motivating and powerful. This process is repeatable and predictable, and the people who participate typically experience an enormous increase in engagement. Being an author of the organization’s strategy for improving the world creates a powerful emotional bond to the company.

And the benefits of having a powerful purpose reach beyond the confines of your organization. Many companies are realizing that a change-the-world message also reaches Millennial buyers. 92% of all consumers will choose a product that has a higher purpose, if price and quality are roughly equivalent. But Millennials are more likely than any other generation to be willing to pay more for a product with a positive social impact.4In fact, over 60% of them would be willing to pay more for a product that’s good for the environment, and that number has been increasing.5

So, if you wish to remain relevant in the emerging paradigm of business, the message is clear: ditch the vague mission statement and commit to finding a higher purpose for your company. Otherwise, Millennial job candidates, employees and consumers will ignore you and you will be left behind.When you find your organizational purpose, you will be in the vanguard of a new breed of leaders who know how to use their positions of power for benefit of their organizations, consumers, and everyone else.


  1. “Millennials at Work: Reshaping the Workplace,” Price Water house Coopers.
  2. “Maximizing Millennials: The who, how and why of managing Gen Y,” UNC
  3. “Millennial Impact Report,” Achieve
  4. “Nielsen Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility,” Q3 2011 and Q1 2013
  5. “Nielsen Energy Audit,” 2012