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The Crisis of Meaning in the Millennial Workforce

September 19, 2011, 12:00 AM
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What's the Big Idea?

For all the talk of trailblazing, the most successful businesses of the 20th century made it to the top by maintaining an edge in the same singular pursuit: maximizing shareholder value.

The dominant mode of thinking at the time was, "Keep your eye on the prize" - profit, of course - at all costs, whether that meant to the environment, to other companies, to some employees who saw their wages drop even as they became more productive. Forget that profit is your raison d'être, and you risked being perceived as self-indulgent, wishy-washy, irrelevant. What’s the matter with this picture?


Shareholder value maximization theory leads to a disconnect between companies and customers, resulting in a lot of action with little purpose, says Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management. What's more, it's boring - especially for employees. Be honest. Have you ever actually been motivated to serve someone you've never met?

Millenials, the first truly "21st century workers," are here to call our collective bluff. The generation that has been simultaneously lauded for its civic engagement and derided for unabashed (and usually undeferential) idealism is bound to shake up the way we do business, according to Martin, who articulates the 20-something perspective like this:

Let me get this straight. I’m supposed to come to work with you and work every day with the singular goal of maximizing the value for faceless, nameless people who could blow us off in a nanosecond if they had a bad hair day. Am I right?

He believes the answer is truthfully, yes.

What's the Significance?

Like a precocious adolescent, the business community has landed smack dab in the middle of its first real existential crisis. The global nature of both capital flow and financial lock-downs in the 21st century - as well as an increasing sense of the urgency and scale of issues like global warming - has caused some business leaders to question old assumptions about value which now seem decidedly stale. (For instance, can it really be measured in dollars alone, with everything else counted as an externality?)

Gen Y is entering the scene just in time to offer fresh answers. "If you want to make better products in an environmentally-responsible way that makes consumers’ lives better? That I could get excited about," says Martin, paraphrasing his theoretical Millenial worker. Indeed, study after study has found that a primary concern for young workers is finding jobs that are meaningful, even at the expense of receiving a high salary.  

It's almost a cliché - to attract forward-thinking talent and start speaking directly to customers again, businesses of all kinds, from the smallest startup to the largest corporation, must do as the churches and schools and non-profits do: inspire people with their mission.

And as modern businesses search for a soul, who better than Millenials to help find one? These ambitious idealists may not have invented vision, but they seem to be particularly good at getting companies to start taking the word seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

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