Millennials: The Purpose Generation

Organizations that ignore this group’s commitment to purpose over profit are taking big risks, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Who cares more about society? The 35 and under crowd or those 35 and over?

In a recent survey, 63% of millennials—essentially workers under 35—said the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” instead of “generating profit." A study from the Society for Human Resource Management tells us that 94% of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause and 57% wish that there were more company-wide service days.

Yes, plenty of people have used “lazy,” “entitled,” “distracted,” or worse to describe millennials in the workplace. But study after study shows that millennials are the first generation to demand that their 40-hour a week jobs be more than just a place to work.

So, is purpose just a millennial value? What happened to all of those outspoken baby boomers who seemed so purpose-driven in the 1960’s and yet are sometimes characterized as clueless about it today?

Maybe older folks are being mischaracterized, too. Imperative, a purpose-based consultancy, and LinkedIn conducted a study showing that purpose-orientation actually increases across generations, with baby boomers in the lead. "There is a common misconception that millennials are unique for wanting to do purpose-driven work," Sjoerd Gehring, vice president of talent acquisition and people experience at Johnson & Johnson, recently said. "In fact, 70 percent of U.S. adults say it is important to them that their actions help make a positive difference in the world.”

Still, that doesn’t take away from the importance of millennials being the ones who will drive purpose in the workplace. First, there’s a good chance millennials will become even more connected to purpose as they age. In his eight-stage theory of development and identity, German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson points to a distinct shift in identity around the age of 40. From 18-40, his theory states, our identity is built through our relationships, particularly finding a healthy intimate relationship. After 40, ideally, we move towards generativity and begin associating our sense of self with what and how we contribute to the world.

Then, of course, there’s the sheer size of the millennial generation: 75 million in the U.S. alone. They now make up the largest generation in the American workforce and will be No. 1 for some time. Plus, they aren’t just entry-level employees any longer, millions of them have now moved into management. How successful organizations define themselves—inside and out—depends on what they care about.  Their passions will continue to inform branding and culture and their demands will impact strategic decision-making.

If millennials want a purpose driven workplace, then organizations would be remiss not to deliver. If the largest generation in the workforce want more volunteer time, then any organization concerned with talent retention would do well to make it happen.

At the same time millennials dominate the workforce, our world is seeing one of the largest transfers of wealth in history. An estimated $24 trillion will move from baby boomers to younger generations, primarily millennials, by 2020. As wealth trickles in from inheritance, entrepreneurial activity, and income gains, the 35 and under crowd are becoming powerful consumers and investors. If purpose—whether it shows up as sustainability or non-profit work—matters to millennials, then it has to matter to any company who wants their money.

Which generation cares more about society? It’s a moot point. The better question is, who has the most power to change things?

If Erickson’s theory of development holds true, and changing the world is a value the Millennial tribe is speaking up on, then it’s a safe bet “purpose” is on track to become a stronger organizational imperative.