Can Millennials Help Corporations Make a Positive Impact on Society?

millennials
HR Magazine reported last month on a study carried out by culture consultancy Kin&Co, revealing that “for younger employees, especially those so-called millennials, working for an organization whose values they genuinely believe in is critical.”

According to the study, almost 80 percent of young millennials (18-24 years old) “would be more motivated and committed at work if they felt their employer made a positive impact on society,” compared to 46 percent of baby boomers, for example.

Sounds great, right? If millennials (people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) prefer companies with purpose, then companies might take their impact on society more seriously and hopefully this would lead to a positive change. And they have the scale to do so — millennials are expected to be about 50 percent of the global workforce by 2020. So, if they could bring purposeful approach to the workforce, change is possible.

While I really wanted to believe what I read, I kept asking myself – is this actually true or nothing but wishful thinking?

The Kin&Co study is not the only one making this claim about millennials. According to the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, millennials believe that the most important values a business should follow if it is to have long-term success are employee satisfaction/loyalty/fair treatment and ethics/trust/integrity/honesty.

In addition the study found that “millennials want to contribute to the positive impact they believe business has on society, but in so doing, they wish to stay true to their personal values.” Millennials also walk the talk when it comes to saying no to a job offer in a company that is not aligned with their values – about half of them have done so, according to the survey. This increases to 61 percent among millennials in senior positions.

Another survey by Net Impact reached similar conclusion. According its 2012 Talent Report, 59 percent of working millennials said it is essential or very important for them to “have a job where I can make an impact on causes or issues that are important,” compared to 49 percent of GenXers and 52 percent of baby boomers. Interestingly, when college students were asked to respond to this statement, the percentage increased to 72 percent.

“Survey after survey,” Jenna Wortham wrote in the New York Times last month, “shows that millennials want to work for companies that place a premium on employee welfare, offer flexible scheduling and, above all, bestow a sense of purpose.” I like this description as it contextualizes purpose as part of the tension in millennials between the ‘me’ and ‘we.’ It is also a manifestation of this generation’s perspective, which is greatly influenced by the Great Recession, and its quest for meaning and for ways to redefine itself in contrast to its parents’ generation.

In this spectrum between the ‘me’ and the ‘we,’ there are some indications that the ‘me’ is somewhat more dominant. For example, in the Net Impact study, students were asked to rate the importance of 16 job attributes as either “essential,” “very important,” “somewhat important” or “not at all important”. The six attributes that received the highest ‘essential’ rating were: work-life balance (51 percent), positive work environment/ culture (45 percent), having interesting work to do (42 percent), job security (41 percent), good compensation (38 percent) and growth opportunities/earn new skills (34 percent). At the same time, only 16 percent of the students rated ‘working for a company that prioritizes CSR’ as an essential attribute.

This is also supported by PwC’s global report, Millennials at work Reshaping the Workplace. Participants were asked: “Which of the following things do you believe make an organization an attractive employer?” The top responses were: opportunities for career progression (52 percent), competitive wages/other financial incentives (44 percent), excellent training/development programs (35 percent), and good benefits packages (31 percent). These are, of course, all ‘me’ replies. The first ‘we’ reply was ‘good reputation for ethical practices,’ which was rated No. 7 with 15 percent.

Let’s assume though that companies will believe that millennials are equally interested in promoting their ‘me’ and ‘we’ agendas. Will this realization help make the companies better in terms of their impact on society?

I believe that this is up to the millennials. If millennials will embrace a passive point of view and will expect organizations to deliver them values and an ethical approach, we’ll end up with incremental changes at best, as business will probably adopt top-town, consultant-based recommendations, such as this one:

“Tying values to processes also makes the role of HR that much more important,” said Kin&Co CEO Rose Warin. “The organization’s leader has to champion this work, but HR is the most important factor in embedding values and purpose. This is HR’s opportunity to shine.”

Substantial change in companies won’t happen in a top-down fashion at scale, though we could see some companies that manage to do it well like Unilever or Jet.com. In most cases it will be bottom-up change, led by millennials assuming a posture of activist manager (mid-level management) with the understanding that what they need is to redesign the corporate experience, not the employee experience.

Millennials’ sassy “f*ck you” attitude and very strong feelings against “old boys club” sh*t” could eventually lead this generation to focus only on the ‘me.’ But it could also easily be developed into a mindset balancing between the ‘me’ and the ‘we,’ where not only organizations, but society overall, could benefit. We can’t make this choice for the millennials, but hopefully we could share with them a series of ideas that will help them find a more impactful path in the corporate world.

Image credit: Flickr/ITU Pictures

Corporate Responsibility

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Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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