Millennials Are Motivated Most by Money

06/08/2015 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

The idea that the younger generation desires meaning above all is a myth.

Tis the season. My wife, Laurie, and I joined millions of other families when we attended our son's college graduation this May. The lunch with the entire clan afterward was truly a time of celebration because this son struggled with dyslexia throughout school but finished college cum laude thanks to his "work then play" attitude and the ability of his old Kindle to read aloud (before Amazon yanked out the text-to-speech functionality). Then the inevitable happened. 20 minutes into lunch, someone brought up student loans and the slow job market for grads. Sadly, this is now the "new normal" topics for college graduates and their families.

The dramatic increases in student loans over the last 20 years that are now weighing on graduates in a tight job market have everyone from Robert Reich to Fortune magazine questioning whether some Millennials should skip college and learn a trade.

With all this attention on the high cost of student loans, this is a good time to bust the pervasive myth that Millennials are more interested in meaning than money. It's been repeated so many times (including by thought leaders in the generational space) that it's now taken as truth. But it's only half the truth.

The truth is the youngest generation in the workplace, the Millennials (born 1981-2001), want both meaning and money. As I point out in my book, Sticking Points (Chapter 14, p. 175):

The vast majority of surveys show that Millennials rank base pay as the most important factor in selecting and staying in a job, just as the other three generations do. They want meaningful work, and a supportive culture to work in, but they want a well-paying job and career advancement more.

It shouldn't surprise us that a generation loaded with record-setting levels of college debt -- struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession but brought up with vacations to Walt Disney World, tablets more expensive than their parents' first car, and big-screen TVs -- wants to "make bank."

Even more surprising, Randstad, the international staffing and human resources company, discovered in his 2008 World of Work survey that Millennials value an entire list of intangible benefits (satisfying work, pleasant job environment, friendly coworkers, challenging tasks, and flexible hours) less than the other three generations. Don't misunderstand: they are motivated by meaningful work and will leave if the job is soulless or the culture discouraging, but Millennials will leave even faster for more money and opportunities to advance, despite what you may have heard.

That's why we need to debunk the popular myth that Millennials care more about meaning than they do about money.

Bottom line: the most important thing to remember is that Millennials want both -- they want to succeed, but they prioritize friends and family higher than anything else. In an article in Notre Dame Business (Fall/Winter 2009), interviewee Sara-Ashley Hernandez, a 2010 graduate of Notre Dame University, captured it well: "I think we all want it all. I mean, me, I want everything. I want the job where I can be successful and have a career and be independent. But I want a husband and I want kids and I want a family. And I want to have a big-city lifestyle, but I want to be able to drive my kids to school." Whether the Millennials can have both success and work-life balance, money and meaning, remains to be seen, but they're not the first generation to want it all. The desire for both/and rather than either/or is not a stage, it's a value system.

Haydn Shaw is the author of Sticking Points: How to Get Four Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart. He writes and speaks internationally to groups about generations, leadership, change management, and teams.