Millennials: The Workforce is Strong

Millennials now comprise 50% of today’s workforce. Is your company doing all it can to appeal to this vital demographic?

Yoda preparing avocado toast for millennial co-stars

The Force Awakens

You know how the saying goes: “Millennials, walking around like they rent the place!”

Regardless of your personal opinion on the generation born between 1981 and 1996, the fact remains that millennials now comprise half of the U.S. workforce. And that number is only growing.

Although other generations (and the internet) generally enjoy poking fun at millennial’s priorities, they inevitably play a leading role in corporate America. I personally tend to enjoy the company of millennials, illustrated by the fact that I married one. Also, many of my friends are millennials. And for full disclosure, I should also admit… I am one!

Of course, millennials are not a monolith. Yet, savvy business leaders are wise to pay attention to trends that may increase appeal. Corporations that neglect opportunities to appeal to this rising demographic risk losing talent to innovative competitors. 

I recently spoke with a vice president of an insurance company headquartered in the Midwest. They admitted some of their Ph.D.’d millennial colleagues have commented, “My friends would never consider working for this company.” When asked why not, they matter-of-factly replied “HQ doesn’t even recycle!”

Making the Connection

Appealing to today’s purpose-driven professional can prove difficult and seemingly nebulous. Is your organization doing all it can to connect to the millennial workforce? Asked another way: Can you afford not to? 

Even if your local market doesn’t currently prioritize corporate sustainability, it’s wise to consider the needs of future markets you seek to enter. Some leaders may conclude demand for corporate responsibility only applies to organizations headquartered in liberal, hippie-dippie, coastal, urban populations. Reality shows addressing sustainability is important for any business seeking legitimate participation in the international marketplace.

If you don’t believe me, consider a few small startups already making splashes in the sustainability space. Some notables include the likes of AB Inbev (think Budweiser), Ingka Group (think Ikea), Walmart (think that whistling smiley face from the prolific 90s ad campaign) to name a few. These corporations aren’t taking the lead just because of warm-fuzzies. The leaders understand the plethora of competitive advantages from acting now.

Business leaders may still attempt to win employees over with the soft perks of yesteryear popularized by Silicon Valley. Such tactics may include table tennis, gourmet coffee bars, or hosting ‘Avocado Toast Thursdays’.

While avocado toast may appear a kryptonite-level perk, a 2019 Fast Company survey reveals that millennials are actually strongly influenced by their employer’s stance (or lack thereof) on global social issues and pay special attention to action over rhetoric. (Regrettably, the research did not include controls studying the allure of avocado toast.) 

In short, how your company responds to (or doesn’t) environmental stewardship can significantly impact your employees’ loyalty and job satisfaction.

The Return of the Data

Studies also reveal another alarming trend – most businesses are late to the game! For example, only 25% of businesses have incorporated sustainability into their business model, while 90% agree it’s important. The reasons for inaction are multi-factorial, but I’ll attempt to cite a couple of the top culprits.

Many business leaders are familiar with the shareholder theory or Friedman doctrine made famous in his seminal 1962 book titled “Capitalism and Freedom” (dibs on band name). Friedman argues a firm is solely responsible for providing maximum value to its shareholders and it’s the role of the government to develop and enforce effective legislation. Many of today’s business leaders adopt this line of thinking as scripture.

You’ll recall Friedman’s heydey in the 1960-the 70s featured dystopian footage of rivers catching on fire, widespread smog, and rapid species extinction. Some today might conclude “we’re good now”, but unfortunately, that opinion directly conflicts with the scientific consensus. Obviously, the government-business yin and yang relationship presents some concerning flaws.

Not to mention, minorities and women were largely excluded from boardroom representation during Friedman’s era, contributing to an embarrassingly unfair pay gap disparity and underemployment in the U.S. Although much improved since the “Mad-Men” days, the U.S. (and world) still grapples with these problems today.

A New Path Forward

A purely unregulated market fails to account for all costs to society – what economists dub “negative externalities”. For example, does rampant child labor, racial and gender-driven economic inequities, and catastrophic pollution exhibit symptoms of a healthy capitalist market that fairly benefits all participants? 

Starting in the 1970s, society began demanding we do better. They started by questioning the role of government and businesses. The world responded with our first ever “Earth Day” to raise awareness for such atrocities and build a better way forward. As a result, fewer rivers caught flame. Today’s millennials, armed with smartphones and fresh toast, are asking if we can and should do more than striving for “less bad”.

Edward Freedman, Darden professor, and Tolkien character inspiration offered a 1983 rebuke to Friedman’s shareholder theory. He popularized “stakeholder theory“ which makes a business case to incorporate morals and values in organizational management.

While not as widely adopted today, shareholder theory appeals to a large swathe of today’s young professionals who believe corporations share a responsibility balancing shareholder and stakeholder interests.

Today a growing number of young professionals believe we can do better, presenting a wonderful opportunity for business leaders.

A New Hope

Businesses prioritizing corporate sustainability are discovering a competitive advantage of offering employees work entailing a greater sense of purpose. If you wonder whether your organization is doing all it can to attract top talent ask yourself, “What percentage of my employees can name our sustainability goals?” 

If the answer is less than 100%, that’s great! Much opportunity awaits! I’ve seen the transformative power of engaging and educating staff on sustainability goals, I want to share that power with your organization.

Perhaps you’re struggling with employee engagement in a remote environment. Perhaps morale is lower than you’d prefer? Are you exploring all of your options to set your organization apart from your competition?

Whether a webinar, workshop, or creation of a sustainability “Green Team”, I want to help your business succeed. Contact Solutions in Sustainability to learn how to capitalize on this momentum and develop meaningful solutions that engage your workforce. No avocado toast required.

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About the Author

Alex Kaufman is a science communicator, professional engineer, clean energy specialist, travel enthusiast, and resident of San Diego, California. When he’s not helping clients, you can usually find him cycling, hiking, reading, spending time with loved ones, or planning the next big adventure. He is open to speaking engagements and can be contacted at alex@alexkaufmanpe.com.

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