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Millennials under the lens of Maslow’s Human Needs

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who developed a model of motivation based on human needs. The needs he identified were:

  1. Physiological (food, water, clothing, etc.)

  2. Safety and security

  3. Love and belonging needs (affiliation/friendship / social connections)

  4. Self-esteem (pride, feeling of accomplishment)

  5. Self-Actualisation (achieving one’s full potential)

According to him, these needs existed in a hierarchy, with physiological needs being the lowest, and self-actualization as the highest. Only when the lower-order needs are satisfied, will the higher-order needs kick into action. These human needs existed centuries ago, exist today, and will continue to exist. What has changed is the form and techniques via which these needs are fulfilled. 

Thousands of years ago, humans fulfilled their need for food by hunting and gathering. Today, those needs are fulfilled by picking up food from supermarket shelves, or online shopping. Carrying home-packed lunches changed to eating in the office cafeteria. Safety needs were fulfilled by spears, bows, and arrows. Now, they are fulfilled by alarm systems, firearms, and nuclear weapons. They are even fulfilled by innovations like insurance, which provide security against misfortune. Belonging and social needs were fulfilled by people singing and dancing around the bonfire. Thankfully, singing and dancing have continued, but social needs are also fulfilled by social media like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Our methods of fulfilling these needs keep evolving, based on socio-economic, technological, political realities of the time. 

Millennials are defined as those born between 1981 and 1996. Besides the changing methods of fulfilling their needs, Millenials also differ in the importance they give to lower-order vs higher-order needs, compared to earlier generations. 

Across the world, the per capita calories available for consumption have increased from the 1960s. We have still not solved the problem of world hunger, but Millenials are born at a time of relatively better fulfillment of physiological needs like food. This is in contrast to their predecessors, for whom putting food on the table was amongst the biggest motivations. Millennials are also born in a relatively safer world, where mortality rates are higher due to medical advances. And while conflict still exists in the world, there is lesser deadly conflict at an overall level, than faced by their predecessors. A starving person, or a person living in fear for his life, is less likely to think about creative and exciting work. A large part of his energy is focused merely on physical survival. The physical survival needs of Millenials are better fulfilled than their predecessors, so their higher-order needs are also activated. 

This has implications in terms of the expectations they have from their employers, and the kind of work they are willing to do. Which has further implications for organizations, in terms of how Millenials have to be attracted, managed, and retained.

“The Millennial generation, in particular, is a highly diverse group that expects meaning, growth, and balance at work” Quoted from “A Great Place to Work for All: Better for Business, Better for People, Better for the World” by Michael C. Bush

Here are 3 important expectations that Millenials have from their employers, along with suggestions on how to manage and fulfill these expectations:

1. Autonomy, growth, and meaningful work

Millennials are not looking for a job merely to put food on their table. While putting food on the table is important, they are no longer happy being a cog in the corporate machine, weighed down by a huge hierarchy. Job security is not their biggest motivator. They are looking for autonomy and meaningful work, where they have opportunities for growth. Large organizations with rigid structures can stifle them, and start-up cultures are very attractive to them. 

Managers need to provide them with challenging work and extend some degree of autonomy in deciding how to go about the work. They need to be given regular feedback on how they are performing, so they are aware of the meaning and impact they are creating. They also need to be given career guidance and opportunities for growth. 

2. More out of life, Balance & Flexibility

Unlike the Baby Boomer generation which was ready to work long hours in the office, Millenials want much more out of life. Work-life balance is very important to them. They want an enriching life outside of work which may include travel, hobbies, friends, and family, etc. Earlier, a career break was almost seen as a disqualifier in a resume. But, Millenials are willing to take career breaks to focus on their passions or family. And, employers are learning to accept it. Millennials focus on overall happiness, and they don’t want rules binding them down to fixed hours and physical presence in the office. They want to be measured on results, instead of time spent in the office. Work from home allows them to save commute time, as well as gives them the flexibility to schedule their personal and professional priorities. 

Managers need to define expected results clearly, how they will be measured, and the timelines. Give Millenials some flexibility in how they achieve the result in terms of remote work, and work schedules. This needs to be managed carefully to achieve the twin objectives of results and flexibility.

3. Respect for diversity

“Millennials have grown up in a time where diversity is so constantly present, where the majority is the minority, where learning about cultures around the globe is highly accessible, that they assume diversity exists everywhere and have a decreased barrier to accepting macro-differences” Quoted from Millennial Myth: Transforming Misunderstanding into Workplace Breakthroughs, by Crystal Kadakia

Millennials respect diversity, and they want to work for organizations that respect diversity. An inclusive culture is very important to them. They want to be seen as an individual who has a right to make decisions about his own life, and they want these decisions to be respected. An organization that discriminates, and does not have an inclusive culture can disengage them quickly, causing them to leave.

Organization practices have to be inclusive, and managers need to have a healthy regard for team members with different ethnicities, colours, races, sexual orientations, etc. Work allocation and performance reviews should be entirely based on merit, and must not reflect discrimination. This is a difficult ask, as many traditional managers are beset with prejudices and biases towards diverse groups. It's important to help them understand that the world is changing, and Millenials are unwilling to accept discrimination in any form. 

The future of work lies in the hands of Millenials. It is time for managers with rigid, unchanging mindsets to wake up and smell the coffee. Those that do, will achieve extraordinary results. And good luck to those that don’t, for the Millenials will leave them behind!

Author – Gulshan Walia,  HR Consultant & Coach at Infinitzus Consulting

Gulshan Walia is a Human Capital consultant and coach. Her areas of expertise include coaching, leadership development, behavioral training workshops, HR processes, performance management, strategic HR, organization development, career planning, and high potential development. More details about her work can be viewed at


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