Vera Kiss writes:
In his controversial 1970 New York Times article, Milton Friedman set the tone for a generation when he argued that the sole responsibility of businesses was to generate profit for their shareholders. But today’s Millennials disagree. Even those in corporate ranks. A recent Deloitte survey of a thousand Millennial employees of the firm reveals that 92% reject the idea that the sole measure of a company’s success is profit.
Importantly, more than 50% believe the primary purpose of business is innovation and societal development. This resonates with the Futures Company’s 2011 Global MONITOR survey, which found that 63% of Millennials believe that companies have a responsibility to support the society in which they operate.
Of course, not all Millennials are engaged with social issues. The Futures Company’s Millennial segmentation reveals significant variation between four global groups of Millennials. Against a global average of 62%, 55% of ‘Striders’ and 43% of ‘Satellites’ consider it important in their lives to make a difference. 76% of ‘Steppers’ and 85% of ‘Spirits’, in contrast, agree with this statement. Spirits, the poster children of the generation, stand out for their interest in global and local issues and are concerned with the ethics of consumption.
Millennial attitudes towards business tell us two stories. One now familiar story is about higher expectations of ethical conduct. The newer story is about the increasing appeal of business-inspired and even business-led solutions for global challenges.
We have seen a proliferation of business-inspired initiatives in the development sphere. Microfinance organizations have mushroomed around the world, pinning the hopes of poverty reduction on micro-entrepreneurs and small scale businesses. Websites such as Kiva provide easy connection between micro-donors and entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Importantly, the corporate sector is increasingly drawn into addressing societal issues through solutions that are designed to do long-term good while also being profitable. The founder of microfinance, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, now tours the world engaging big business in social enterprise initiatives that seek to maximise their social impact rather than shareholder returns. He has already partnered with Danone to address childhood malnutrition in Bangladesh through a business selling fortified yoghurt products. Inclusive business strategies are also gaining visibility, with development agencies partnering with large companies to include bottom of the pyramid consumers as small investors and suppliers.
Business-influenced strategies won’t provide all-encompassing solutions to global issues, or replace public and non-governmental organisations. The point is that businesses can increasingly act as legitimate agents of social change. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as surprise (especially given the sample) that most respondents to the Deloitte survey think that business has the greatest potential of any sector to achieve societal change.
This creates opportunities for businesses and brands to connect with socially conscious Millennials – but they have to understand the differences within the cohort, and be able to demonstrate real impact through their business practices.
The picture of the Danone Grameen logo on the side of its factory at Bogra is from the Danone Communities Flickr photostream, and it is used with thanks.