A Critical Generation Gap

The older generation lived through economic boom times and few hints of trouble with Mother Nature.

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Do you remember “duck-and-cover”? For those who don’t, that was a drill school students in the 1950s and 1960s practiced every month, where kids hid under their desks and covered their eyes and neck. That, their teacher assured them, was protection from a nuclear blast.

If you remember duck-and-cover, that marks you as a baby boomer. The exercise was ubiquitous during the height of the Cold War (remember that?). But if instead of duck-and-cover you recall “active shooter” drills in school, hiding in your classroom or running down the halls to escape, you are a member of Generation Z, the youngest of whom are still doing this drill in schools, while the oldest are at the entry level in many companies.

Today, of course, a new trauma may be developing in the form of a global pandemic. Only time will tell if that has any lasting impact. But, whether responding to historic events or current issues, smart businesses are realizing that aligning those concerns with their worker and customer base can have a real value.

For the long term, that base, of course, centers around those born since 1980. Apart from school shootings, that cohort’s generational trauma today appears to center on a whole different fear: environmental meltdown. We are in the midst of a steady drumbeat of alarming ecological news, from huge wildfires in Australia and California to record-setting heatwaves in Europe and Antarctica to hundreds of blocks in Manhattan inundated by waters from a huge hurricane. That unnerving drumbeat continues in the daily news.

Those of the older generation lived through economic boom times and few hints of trouble with Mother Nature. But today’s younger folk are keenly alert to environmental dangers. And many of them are finding a heartfelt sense of meaning in finding ways to slow down, if not reverse, what they perceive as a planet-wide death march.

A Gallup poll put numbers to this age gap: 70 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 are worried about the impacts of global warming, while among those 55 and older the rate is just 56 percent. The relationship is direct: the younger the group, the more they care about the environment.

So in general, the younger the group, the more the environment looms as a key challenge. And that gap grows even bigger if you ask what may be the most telling question, whether you think climate change will become a problem for you during your lifetime.

Here’s where the strategic opportunity can be found. For the youngest, Gen Z, the environment tops the list of issues they want corporations to address. If younger consumers and talented younger employees find an urgent purpose in doing the right thing for the environment, then companies would do well to embrace such goals. For starters, companies could loosen the pressure for quarterly results a bit to make room for environment-enhancing missions too, like reducing an organization’s carbon footprint.

Companies are increasingly seeking a larger mission in addition to fiscal growth. They would do well to find that second purpose in doing what they can to combat the planetary drift toward warming. While that strategy was largely a bust in former times, when relatively few consumers cared about the climate, the smart bet says consumers in the future will care increasingly.

For Gen Z, the environment tops the list of issues they want corporations to address. Declaring environmental concerns as vital to a corporation’s mission could be of immense help in attracting and retaining talented young people, many of whom say they do not want to work for a company that does not align with their own sense of purpose. Plus, companies that are genuine “good guys” in the eyes of Gen Z and millennials are more likely to win their loyalty as clients and customers in years to come.