By 2020, half of the US workforce is expected to be a millennial – someone aged 18-34. According to the Office of National Statistics, more than a third of the UK’s working population already falls into this age bracket.
At a time of great political and social change, these young recruits want something different from brands as consumers. Whether it’s Mars attending UN climate change talks in Paris or Adidas tackling plastic waste in our oceans, they want them to act responsibly and offer leadership on social, and frequently, environmental issues, and they want this from brands as employers too.
Businesses can capitalise on this emotional connection that starts when young talent are consumers, by offering prospective employees an opportunity to achieve personal goals and contribute to something bigger, says Dr Felicity Hardley, senior lecturer in marketing and business strategy at the University of Westminster.
“It is more satisfying for many people, whether young or old, to say the work they do or the employer they work for is trying to make a ‘difference’ rather than just money,” says Hardley.
“Jobs for younger people have become about identity. People want their job to say something about who they are not just what they do,” adds Ben Hayman, managing partner at Given London.
According to the 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey, millennials feel they can exert more influence on the world’s biggest problems via the workplace – a sense of empowerment that is particularly attractive in uncertain political times. Unilever, which has promised to reduce its environmental footprint and increase its positive impact on society, has said half its graduate applicants cite the company’s ethical approach and sustainability work as the primary reason they want to work for the company.
Demonstrating a purpose beyond profit allows firms to compete for young recruits more strongly than ever before, says Rachel Whale, chief executive of Koreo, a talent agency dedicated to social change.
“Of all the [business] reasons to take purpose seriously, the talent acquisition and retention argument is the strongest,” she adds. Deloitte’s report agrees, stating that businesses which “engage in issues of concern to millennials are more likely to gain their trust and loyalty.”
“If working for a brand that is committed to social causes can enhance the ‘sense of purpose’ that many, especially younger, employees often desire, they may be more likely to stick around before looking for another job that meets their needs,” says Hardley.
Smaller businesses may also use a commitment to causes beyond profit as a differentiator to help them compete with bigger firms for the best young talent, says Chris Truman, director of recruitment consultancy Stormx.
By publicising your firm’s purpose at the recruitment stage, a business may also save time and money on training and embedding young staff. “Alignment with purpose [between recruit and employer] filters in people who are going to be good for your business in the long-term and makes them better, faster,” says Hayman.
The argument beyond talent acquisition and retention in favour of “doing good” as a business is clear: a 10-year growth study of more than 50,000 brands suggests that those which focus on “improving people’s lives” grow three times faster than their competitors. The rise of start-ups, such as Airbnb and Lyft, which started with a public commitment to social causes, is also pushing more established businesses to do the same.
But to reap the benefits, a company’s commitment must be genuine. As Truman says, if such promises turn out to be illegitimate when a candidate begins working with the firm, this could be a problem for both employee and employer.
Businesses should also take note of research by Pricewaterhousecoopers, which suggests that millennials may place a greater value on an employer’s commitment to wider causes only when more basic needs are met, such as a plan for salary or role development.
But Whale says that young people should not have to compromise – business culture needs to change. “If you’re coming into the world of work, why should you have this binary choice between progression at a corporation versus purpose at a charity. It shouldn’t be a choice, you should move into a working culture where purpose is hard-wired all the way through,” she says.
Indeed Deloitte’s research suggests that larger businesses could go further in the eyes of young employees. According to the’ survey: 74% of respondents said they believe business has the potential to make a positive impact on challenges that most concern millennials, such as economic and social progress, conflict, and inequality, but just 59% of respondents said they believe multinational businesses were fulfilling this potential.
Companies need to meet this expectation: with the average life of a business now estimated by some experts as shorter than 20 years, the younger generation will be the business founders and leaders of the near future. For existing firms to survive, adapting to the needs and desires of this emerging workforce will be crucial.
“If that’s the generation coming through, what an amazing opportunity for us to redefine work,” says Whale. The desire for purpose and the activist mindset shared by many young people is exactly what companies need for the future, she adds: “The skills needed to tackle some of the world’s most complex social problems could not be more relevant to business. It’s a very powerful, problem-solving, entrepreneurial skill set.”
Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.