The role of businesses in society and the perspective on work is changing. The norm of what the next generation accepts from companies, and what they consider ‘normal’ demands from their workplace, is shifting. This is already impacting the relationship between the employer and the employee. It is changing how young professionals engage (or don’t) with their employer. And it is influencing how and where they want to work, what leadership they value and more importantly what skills and knowledge they need from day one of their career.
As we speak, there is a widening gap in organisations between young professionals and the workplace culture and expectations. Many young professionals are starting their careers in companies that still have a strong sense of hierarchy; where not all voices have an opportunity to be heard; where sustainability and inclusion aren’t the norm; and where work-life balance is not respected. These young professionals are looking for companies that value their autonomy, and more generally, honour the greater good. A different mindset is entering the workplace with generational tensions that need to be acknowledged.
For this new generation to be able to add their talents to the workplace and play their role in business, we need to address these gaps in workplace expectations and behaviours.
In this article we will look at the changes in society and in business that influence the workplace (part 1. and 2.) and provide insights needed to bridge the gap (part 3. and 4.)
Part 1. A generational gap and showing your true colours
Part 2. Business is becoming political and personal
Part 3. The missing elements
Part 4. A generation of action
PART 1. A Generational gap
If you look for research on what employers need to do to attract employees from the Millennials and GenZ generations, it becomes clear the majority of these generations prefer to work for a welcoming, purpose-driven company with a good reputation. More and more employees explicitly choose companies with aligned values or reject prevailing company values if they do not agree with them. These values can be around sustainability, inclusion, organisational hierarchies and power structures, and work-life balance. But they are also about respect and fairness. Follow Reddit’s channel Antiwork and you will see many examples of employees naming and shaming companies who don’t treat their work staff with respect.
The needs that are voiced by younger generations are not new. They reflect the three basic universal needs important for health and wellbeing researched by Deci and Ryan. These needs are autonomy, mastery and sense of belonging. The World Economic Forum says that while these needs are universal they have new meaning for Millennials and GenZ in the workplace.
The young generation of employees have grown up in a different world. Their awareness of climate change, or social inequity, the impact of our colonial past and growing awareness of institutional racism among others, has provided them with a different mindset. It has been part of their academic training and personal experience to include sustainability in decision-making and to allow for different points of view, or more self-awareness around matters of diversity and inclusion.
It's not enough for companies to follow international rules and industry regulations, they need to be net positive and lead the way. Activist students have started occupying universities, demanding that climate action and social justice become an integral part of every university degree.
University students and young professionals see human rights, climate-agreements like COP, the right to organise and unionise, fair wages, good working conditions, family-friendly working environments, healthy work/life balance, supply-chain due diligence, ESG and Scope 1,2,3 carbon reporting, the Sustainable Development Goals and other UN-treaties, OECD-norms, ESG reporting and transparency demands as integral to doing business. 'Do no evil' is not good enough. Young professionals want their businesses to lead the way.
I can tell you; all these topics were absent during my years at university and long after. And I presume these topics were absent in study and training of many corporate managers and present CEOs as well.
Society is changing and businesses can no longer do business with their own interests (and shareholder value) in mind. On many occasions, consumers, citizens, employees, have demanded that companies and governments take their role and behave ethically - becoming corporate citizens, rather than being beholden to their shareholders. The group of companies who are still not changing, is growing smaller, but there is also a large group that haven't really internalised the changes. They are not responding or think they can get away with greenwashing. It is working for some, but for how long? Young people know the difference. They want companies to be authentic and live up to their purpose and values in everything they do.
Showing your true colours
Younger generations will show more and more resistance to the separation between family, friends and self, between community and self and professional and self. Young professionals, Millennials and Generation-Z (Gen Alpha is lining up) are part of the impact generation. They are the initiators and followers of Fridays for Future, Climate movements, Avaaz and Extinction Rebellion. They are part of demonstrations and petitions. And they are growing up with the experiences of a lock-down, a war in Europe, a climate and energy crisis.
Last year, employees of multiple companies saw their company mentioned by Friends of the Earth NL among the biggest polluters. In March 2022, we saw how quickly businesses were called to become part of an anti-war coalition in response to the Russian invasion in Ukraine. The discussion of what a company should, and should not do, has been around for some time.
The role of business and how political a company can and should be, has intensified in the last two decades.
Different stakeholders such as investors, consumers, employees, and NGOs have been pushing for a more responsible business agenda.
The role a business chooses to take in the system can be plotted on a spectrum. It can vary from criminal behaviour to being a good citizen. There are roughly five categories and everything in between these:
• Criminal and opaque
• Comply with minimum rules
• Mitigate compliance and imago risks
• Responsible targets and sustainable image
• Responsible purpose, reporting and regeneration.
Young professionals want to know where their companies sit on this spectrum, if they are moving in the right direction and call for change if their employer is part of the problem and not of the solution.
Author: Véronique Swinkels.
SDG activist. Co-founder, trainer and coach at the Undercover Activist.