Millennials Think Differently Than Their Elders

Millennials are stigmatized as being self-centered, narcissistic and entitled. But is it true that millennials do no good for their workplaces?

A study investigating generational differences when it comes to employees having different work-reward balances may shed light on this question [1]. Before diving into the research and its findings, let’s talk about the overall context.

Traditionally, scholars assume that everyone longs for equity. They believe everybody wants to be the same as everyone else. So employees first calculate the efforts they put into their job in proportion to the rewards they received from the job (like pay, benefits, etc.). Next, they compare this ratio to that of other people — like their co-workers. This is called the equity theory [2]. When employees and their comparison others are equally compensated for their contributions at work, people are satisfied.

But if these work-reward ratios are different, the person who is under-rewarded may experience stress and seek to make themselves equal with others. What’s interesting is the same holds true if someone is over­-rewarded; they also feel the need to make things more equal in relation to others out of a sense of guilt.

However, later research found that not everybody necessarily responds, or is even aware, that sometimes others are not rewarded the same. Researchers hence divided people into three groups based on their sensitivity to (or tolerance to) unequal situations [3]:

  • Benevolents: Benevolents are givers and tolerate their efforts at work exceeding the rewards they receive (under-rewarded).
  • Equity sensitives: Equity sensitives are highly sensitive to either type of inequity. They feel "distress" when under-rewarded and guilt when over-rewarded.
  • Entitles: Entitles are more focused on the rewards than the efforts. They actively fight for higher rewards while sustaining similar level of efforts.

Earlier research on the entitlement of millennials lacks solid scientific evidence (read an in-depth analysis). One of the critiques is that researchers only studied college students but generalized their findings to the whole millennial generation.

In a paper published in 2015, researchers therefore sampled three generations: baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials; they studied the generational differences on how they respond to unequal situations.

Results revealed there are more entitles-millennials than entitles-baby boomers and entitles-Gen Xers. (Remember, entitles actively fight for higher rewards.)

But there are no significant differences on the number of equity sensitives (wanting everyone to be equal no matter what) or benevolents (accepting of being under-rewarded) among the three generations. [1].

Moreover, another research study found that entitles value extrinsic rewards (money) more than benevolents, whereas benevolents value intrinsic rewards, such as work autonomy and career growth, more than entitles [4];[5].

These findings suggest that a bigger paycheck can be a core motive for work for the millennial, and they are more likely to initiate a conversation about their pay and benefits than their elders.

Does it mean that they are greedy and asking for disproportional rewards? Not necessarily. The monetary value of a person’s work can be quite subjective as long as the organization agrees. So, what should leaders do when supervising these millennials?

One suggestion is to provide employees timely and accurate feedback on their performance. While making the rewards completely contingent on each employee’s performance, a leader’s feedback serves to constantly remind the employee to adjust his/her effort levels.

The other suggestion is to remain in open communication with these young employees. Millennials value different things than their predecessors. For example, millennials emphasize their needs for emotional fulfillment and personal relationships more than baby boomers and Gen Xers. Caring and creating personal bonds with employees may also enhance employees’ efforts at work (read a comprehensive introduction to millenials’ work values).

Do you have millennials in your workplace? Or are you a millennial? What do you think of this study? Tell us in the comments.


[1] Allen, R. S., Allen, D. E., Karl, K., & White, C. S. (2015). Are Millennials Really an Entitled Generation? An Investigation into Generational Equity Sensitivity Differences. Journal of Business Diversity, 15(2), 14-26.

[2] Adams, J. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 267-299). New York: Academic Press.

[3] Huseman, R. C., Hatfield, J. D., & Miles, E. W. (1987). A new perspective on equity theory: The equity sensitivity construct. Academy of management Review, 12(2), 222-234.

[4] Kickul, J., & Lester, S. W. (2001). Broken promises: Equity sensitivity as a moderator between psychological contract breach and employee attitudes and behavior. Journal of business and psychology, 16(2), 191-217.

[5] Miles, E. W., Hatfield, J. D., & Huseman, R. C. (1994). Equity sensitivity and outcome importance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15(7), 585-596.


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