THE BLOG

From Generation Me to Generation We: How Millennials Are Changing Business

04/08/2014 06:18 EDT | Updated 06/08/2014 05:59 EDT

Talk about harsh. The TIME magazine cover last May cried: "The Me Me Me Generation: Millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents."

From magazines to op-ed pages, we're not surprised if millennials -- that generation who came of age in the new millennium -- are not feeling the love. An Internet search of "millennial bashing" turns up 1.2 million hits. A veritable army of researchers, pollsters and consultants have put these allegedly finicky, sloth-like millennials under the microscope to see what makes them tick.

Much of the negative press on millennials -- born between 1982 and 2001 -- seems to stem from the work of Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of such books as Generation Me (Atria Books, 2007) and The Narcissism Epidemic (Atria Books, 2010). After mining the data she gathered in the early 2000s, Twenge proclaimed, among other things, that millennials were less likely to be interested or engaged in social issues.

But the most recent studies, experts we spoke with and our own personal experience working with thousands of millennials -- at work, or as volunteers -- paint a picture of young people who are less Generation Me and more Generation We.

The Boston Consulting Group and global marketing research firm Nielson conducted international studies in 2012 and 2013, comparing the consumer habits of different generations. They found that millennials are more likely than other generations to give their business to companies that give back to the community, socially and environmentally. They are also more likely to buy products associated with a cause.

And it's not just their own buying habits that are affected, according to author David Stillman, who is a recognized expert on inter-generational issues in the workplace, and co-author of When Generations Collide: Who they are. Why they clash. How to solve the generational puzzle at work. (HarperBusiness, 2003)

Stillman says millennials have a closer relationship with their parents than recent generations. As a consequence, millennials play a bigger role in their parents' consumer decisions -- influencing everything from where they vacation, to choosing ethical consumer products like sweatshop-free clothing. This will also have a significant impact on how businesses operate.

The Boston Consulting Group puts it bluntly: "Companies that fail to understand and embrace the needs and characteristics of this generation will have a hard time developing well-targeted, appealing products and services."

In the workplace, employers complain "entitled" millennials expect too much recognition and advancement at the start of their careers. But Stillman argues those employers misunderstand what their millennial workers are really seeking: meaning.

Stillman says all generations have sought to make a positive difference in the world with their work. The key difference is that past generations accepted the idea of paying dues -- putting in years of service before they could start asking for meaning in their job. Millennials want to make an impact from the get-go. A millennial who questions being made to answer phones is not necessarily "entitled" or demanding a better job. They simply want to know how their task contributes to the organization's bigger picture and mission.

When choosing a company to work for, millennials are more likely to base their decision on answering the question, "Will my work have a meaningful impact?" than "What is my salary?" That's according to Generations at Work, a survey of 398,000 millennials by employment web site Payscale.com. A 2013 study of 1,000 millennials by Bentley University likewise concluded that, for this generation: "...working together to make a difference in the world is more important than individual success at a job."

According to Deloitte's Millennial Survey 2014, millennials looking for work place greater weight on how a business gives back than on its profit margin. As much as millennials want to buy products from companies that care, they also want to work for companies that care.

Marc recently travelled to rural north-eastern India to help build a new school with a group from one of our corporate partners, KPMG. Under CEO Bill Thomas, KPMG Canada has put community engagement at the core of its business plan. Employees are encouraged to volunteer for any cause that interests them. And you need to be an active volunteer if you want a promotion. The millennials in the group told Marc that KPMG's policies on giving back had earned their loyalty, and inspired them to do their best in their jobs. We've heard the same from human resource teams at a score of other top Canadian businesses, from small start-ups to giants like RBC and Telus.

For all the bashing of millennials, when it comes to spending and working, their priority is making a difference. Businesses that want to attract the best workers and remain profitable must make it their priority as well.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.