Taking on Business, Government & Consumerism


Does what is happening in American politics foreshadow greater changes to come?

I often hear it said that today's newest workers (often described as the millennial generation) are so passionate about social justice and the environment they are sure to come up with the solutions to the host of issues that fall under the umbrella terms of 'sustainability' or 'corporate responsibility.' And research shows that this latest group to enter the workforce does care about these issues, and even uses them to determine who is worthy of their time and talent. But it may be far more unsettling than people realize.

The same generation that at 17 sang 'share the land' at Woodstock was 55 on Wall Street bundling collateralized debt obligations that were a major factor in the 2008 market and economic collapse. How did that happen? Three factors that we need to recognize and address, lest the next generation of idealists becomes cynical and/or complacent.

Debts and financial obligations: Debts and financial obligations; whether they are college loans, mortgages, or paying for one's own children compound until suddenly one may be faced with the need to earn a living and less concerned about the organization that is able and willing to provide that living. My father, who in his youth yearned to be a writer stated it well; "Being a starving artist was a romantic notion, but being a starving artist with a family to support was just irresponsible." And so he channeled his writing desire into a successful mainstream career.

Second, the American consumer culture. And in business people often state 'culture trumps all.' Whether it is keeping up our competitive nature (keeping with the Joneses) or being influenced by the relentless marketing juggernaut that is the American media, we are a country of conspicuous consumption. Sure it got better during the recession, with people keeping things longer and not 'flipping' houses or automobiles but as gas prices have fallen, the sales of larger, less efficient and more opulent vehicles have rebounded to pre-Great Recession levels.

And America matters not only because it is the largest single economic power, but because of its cultural influence. The American model of capitalism has been the dominant one throughout most of the 20th century. And the entertainment business has been the chief culture distributor; as evidenced by local people wearing corporate logos as far away as the rain forests of South America, on the Serengeti Plain and in the Australian outback.

Rejecting politics as the solution: Many people believe that a good litmus test whether today's younger people are going to be willing to take up the gauntlet that we casually assign to them is looking at how and if they participate in the political process. In 2015 millennials surpassed baby boomers as the largest share of the U.S.'s voting-age population. And as more members of this generation reached voting age, participation (as well as numbers) of young voters rose. But that seems to have peaked in 2008 (when just over half voted). In 2012, the turnout among voters 18 to 29 dropped to 45 percent.

Research shows that it is not that they do not care; it is just that they do not trust or believe in the traditional mechanisms (like government or big business) to work for them. And it is disruptive, not just transformative. Disruption challenges the status quo - which is why both political parties were caught absolutely flatfooted (and remain helpless) when faced with the candidacies of two outsiders (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders) both of whom, for completely different constituencies, represent the rejections of the idea of 'politics as usual.' And this disruption seems to encompass all five generations (traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z).

Millennials may not be the driving force that they could be in this election (if they 'vote' to stay home) if candidates do not find a way to reach out and engage them in a way that is meaningful and motivates them to come to the polls. The same holds true for businesses. Some will continue to struggle to engage hearts and minds of workers who find corporate rules and structures restrictive and may be inspired to start their own businesses, developing their own Apps and finding new and non-traditional ways to be the change that they want to see in the world. And they're challenging the traditional consumer culture as well. In urban areas in particular many are eschewing owning automobiles - which are seen more as an economic and logistical encumbrance than the means of freedom that they were for prior generations - and using public transportation, ride shares and Uber.

As for business, they're driving new expectations as well. While baby boomers have long ago abandoned the notion of a 30 year career with the same company followed by a secure retirement with a pension, Millennials are re-redefining that 'social contract' as well. Not content to accept that the 'old' days are gone, they are seeking - and in some cases demanding - that companies not just 'give back' but be game-changers as well.

It seems that many in the new generation are poised to build a more sustainable future by rejecting the paradigms of business, government and culture. It just looks and sounds different than we may have expected.