Is the Next Generation Ready for the Sustainability Challenge?

On September 26, TriplePundit hosted the #Whypurpose Twitter chat on the potential and need for engaging Millennials in sustainability issues. Encouraged by the chat, Joanne Sonenshine and Marc de Sousa Shields continued the discussion. This excerpt of their conversation is a testament to how invigorating dialogue encourages thinking and, hopefully, leads to action.

Marc: Joanne, if the world is to avoid looming environmental global calamity, we must necessarily transition to a low-carbon economy. I think we agree on that!

We also know it’s going to happen by design or disaster. As an early Gen Xer, I feel bad we are dumping this on the Millennials. They are going to have to make the changes to production and consumption habits we could never manage if climate change is to be stopped and biodiversity regenerated to sustainable levels.

Many see light in “purpose-driven” Millennials. I’m not convinced they are ready for the sustainability challenge. What do you think they can accomplish as employees and business leaders?

Joanne: Marc, don’t you find the concept of trying to “win over the Millennials” a bit exhausting? True, they are shaping up to be a very influential generation in terms of spending and work habits, but are we focusing too much attention on their role in reshaping corporate engagement and defining purpose?

There is no end to the books, articles, even public relations firms dedicated to “influencing millennials.” Can they turn the sustainability tide – climate change, overconsumption, food waste and resource burnout?

OK, all that said and even though I am not one (just barely), Millennials are a real phenomenon. Fast at everything and prone to immediate gratification, is there a place in their so called purpose-driven world for sustainability issues?

If the attention placed on this generation of ChangeSeekers means that companies and decision makers shift their time and energy to making the bottom line about their impact on the planet, then it’s all for a good reason. It’s up to all of them to be pushy in that regard.

What about you? As a fellow Gen Xer/cuspy Boomer, where do you think the sense of purpose will take us in the next generation?

Marc: I am divided, Joanne. Truly. Part of me wants to believe Millennials will be different. I did some research on the topic, and found that of the 20 or so Millennials I interviewed about sustainable investment habits, most tended to regress to the fairly typical (unsustainable) middle-class American lifestyle as they aged.

I could easily be convinced that Millennials will not be much different than us, but my question to them is: is growth economics generally, mortgages and expensive educations specifically, something you really want? My reading is not really, and that “purpose” for Millennials means greater work-life balance, and doing what they love: a good start but hardly leading to sustainable economies.

Joanne: I do get the sense this is the case. But countless Twitter and LinkedIn posts tell me that purpose does seem to trump economics when it comes to this generation.

There is a part of me that suspects the Millennials assume it’s easy to have both purpose and material advances, which may be true in some instances, not true in others. Do you think it’s realistic to encourage this generation that they can “have it all?” Or are we overpromising?

Marc: I wish I knew the answer to that one Joanne. But I think we can say three things about it with some certainty.

First, there are some fine efforts supporting a more purpose-driven world that can lead the way. TriplePundit’s #WhyPurpose Twitter chat leaders – Pearson, Walton Initiatives, PRME Secretariat, NetImpact – all have great ideas and resources.

Next, Millennials are on the cusp of redefining what constitutes value, with time and passion being more important than stuff. Again, this is an excellent starting point, and goes much further than us Gen Xers who wanted something similar but ignored ourselves and jumped to material consumption hyperdrive.

Last, it’s in Millennials’ hands to decide. They soon will be the majority of business leaders and employees. It’s their choice.

Can you see something my failing Gen X eyes are missing?

Joanne: I keep going back to the notion that successful sustainability and protecting the future of the planet are up to all of us, regardless of our generation.

Maybe Millennials spend too much time “sharing” ideas on social media to really act on their purpose? Are they taking the risks required to reshape the economy? Is all this Snapchatting leading to something more? I’m not just talking about Silicon Valley-type change, nor the challenges of reshaping products and services either. That’s the easy part. The harder part will be about companies melding ideas from employees of all ages in crazy, fluid and innovative ways.

So, I guess, the big question is: Does desire for purpose lead to action?

Marc: I hope so, and if I could have just one wish, it would be for Millennials to get far more pushy and disruptive about the purposeful change the want.

Joanne: That resonates with me, too. I like action and am not one to sit around and wait; its on us to act or not. Let’s not wait for the ‘other people’ to fix our problems. If we don’t do our best to make the world a better place for ourselves, we certainly won’t have the ability to blame anyone but ourselves when it all falls apart (which we’ve seen too much of lately).

Marc: Amen to that, Joanne.

Marc de Sousa-Shields is a writer on sustainability issues, advisor to the UN, and author of Invest Like You Give a Damn (New Society Publishers, forthcoming Nov. 2017).

Joanne Sonenshine is Founder of Connective Impact, a partnerships strategy and collaboration advisory firm, and author of ChangeSeekers: Finding Your Path to Impact.

Image credit: iStock

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