Generation theory and motivation. Are there really any differences between XYZ?

It is natural for a person to rely on various theories – this gives confidence. When we look for answers in the hard sciences, the evidence of theories, backed up by laboratory tests, helps us not to be wrong with the next step. But can this approach be transferred to the study of human communities?

In 1991, two smart guys, Strauss and Howe, offered the general public a kind of universal, in their opinion, theory that explains the differences between people born in different decades – in their views, dynamics, motivation, etc. Any theory that tries to introduce at least some Something algebraic transparency in the chaos of the behavioral characteristics of homo sapiens is rapidly becoming very popular. After all, everyone, from executives, parents, and HRs to governments, is looking for a magic button to control people. And voila – here it is the golden key – the theory of generations!

According to this theory, generations replace each other every 20 years and bear clear unifying features that arise under the influence of economic, political and other large-scale influences. Each generation has its own set of behavioral features that are dictated by almost physiological differences (just kidding).

What does all this mean for leaders? Strauss and Howe argue that each generation has its own characteristics of motivation.


At first glance, this is a great idea, but personally, as a sociologist by my first education, I have a number of questions. 20 years is a very short time to judge that there are significant differences in basic patterns of motivation from one such generation to the next. The human age is getting longer and longer. 20 years is youth, if not childhood for a modern person. Most just manage to get out of the sliders and end the long and tedious learning process. A person at this age is just beginning to feel independent, reaching legal maturity (in some countries). What motivates such a tomboy who has escaped from parental and teacher care? Of course, the desire to change the world (globally), to be different from others (mom-dad, neighbor on the porch, bore-teacher), to show everyone “wow, what I am!”. And he decides to “live differently”: to protect nature, to fight for what the past generations have ruined, to fight the sluggish regime that these past generations have allowed, to call “Make love – not war” … Does it remind you of anything?

All these are examples of ideas that arise systemically and are equally significant for different generations. In fact, each of them is going through its own period of generation of a certain super-idea, which “builds up” them from their parents. As a result of this, shifts occur (in different directions, not only in technology), which affect the development of the entire human community.

So what are we comparing in our magical generational theory? How quickly did our ancestors adapt to electricity, steam power, and the emergence of mass aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, and how quickly did we and our children adapt to the Internet and the digitalization of our lives? Yes, the rhythm of life, the development of technology is accelerating from year to year. But what is more difficult – a sharp start from scratch, and even in a difficult military situation in the country, or dynamic development in a relatively peaceful time?

And in general – can we correctly compare what happened with our ancestors 50 years ago, a century ago, 10 centuries ago and now? Are we juxtaposing “soft and warm”?

Generations and motivation

But back to our managerial tasks. Everything with us, on the one hand, is simpler – we need to organize everyone for work, preferably without the use of brute force, on the other hand, it is more difficult, because we are not measured by communities, but by our own employees, a team that is next to us and we need for the implementation of tasks, and indeed partly our working family.

An analysis of the motivational characteristics of different people leads to the question: are generations really so different in our main tasks and motivations? For example, in their youth, people always strive to stand out in order to be noticed and chosen by the best. In ancient times, this meant being the strongest, fastest and most agile hunter. Later – to be able to do something better than everyone else (which means to be chosen as the best mentor, the best girl / guy, the best project, the best company, and so on).

Today it is important for us to be on horseback intellectually. Why? This gives belonging to the circle of “friends”, today for survival it is not physical superiority that is actual, but intellectual. It also gives us economic stability, which means the ability to raise healthy children and take care of them. In this respect, nothing can radically change. The biological foundations are unchanged over such a short time span.

This implies, in my opinion, the main principle of successful development and motivation of a team of any generation: the employer must first of all ensure the intellectual development of employees, as well as a sense of belonging to “their own”. At the applied level, this is realized through the team, which gives a feeling of emotional calmness, regular training, a systematic process of knowledge exchange between employees and a mentoring system.

Cookies and coffee or smoothies and yoga?

Of course, one should not forget about the “base”, about physical comfort: a warm, bright office, a comfortable working environment, including in terms of infrastructure.

Office and various “goodies” – this is the aspect in which IT companies compete with each other most actively. Does Company X offer corporate yoga classes to employees? Her competitor Y is introducing Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai! Your company orders pizza for employees on Fridays? And we will order sushi for our own!

All this struggle, oddly enough, is perceived by the employees themselves ambiguously. Of course, everyone is happy about the office “buns”, but over time you hear the opinion that this is not such a significant story to pay so much attention to it. And if at the same time HR does not help to resolve conflicts in the team, does not organize the professional development of the team, the next innovations in terms of small corporate bonuses are perceived rather with irritation.

Many suspicions creep in: the company pays for dinners for employees who work after 20:00. Does this mean that they will expect constant rework from me? If so much money is spent on smoothies, does it mean that I am personally underpaid?

At the same time, as my experience shows, for the sake of interesting tasks, constant learning and development, many will close their eyes to the absence of some small buns (which, of course, does not negate the employer’s obligation to take care of employees and provide them with a comfortable environment for work).

For the last ten years I have been working in a young, mostly male IT / cybersecurity team. The practice is irrefutable: “Xs” have been diluted by “millennials”, now they are already confidently propped up by “Zetas” – the requests do not change:

– “I would like to come to you for an internship. When can I? “
– “I can already try myself in analytics, can Lesha give me tasks? I’ll do it after work! “
– “I took a course on Python at the Curser. But Styopa has tasks – can you give me a try? “
– “When do we hire new interns? I could already give them courses. Why only Sasha reads? “

During this time, the guys in front of my eyes worked in open spaces that are not so popular with IT specialists, and in rooms designed for five or eight, and in iron trailers in the Far North, and on business trips for 2 months. And for no generation has comfort been a key metric. New tasks, “charged” colleagues, a leader listening and hearing you are a hundred times more important. Tested by three generations of Ibeshniki – it works.


Every day I see a lot of articles about the problems of motivation of generation Z – they are not like X and Y, they do not know how to work for a result, they are fickle, they are not interested in a career … Yes, generations have differences, but they are rather external. The “grain”, the very essence, does not change: everyone wants not to pull the bagpipe, but to do what they love; not “do what they say,” but make your own contribution; to work not according to the principle “you are the boss – I am a fool”, but in a dialogue mode Perhaps Generation Z is just a little less willing to put up with what does not suit them, but this is for the best – the employer must also develop and be “in the market” from the position of employees.

Author: Maria Sigaeva, HR Director of Rostelecom-Solar

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