I recently wrote an essay for Relevant Magazine. Due to its length it was shortened (you can read the shorter Relevant Magazine version here.) For those who would like to read the full version I have posted it below. This is an important economic issue that will impact each of us and everyone we know. I welcome your feedback and dialogue.
Why Millennials Need to Lead the Workplace Revolution
For many generations, young people have been change agents in society, ushering in cultural and political revolutions that have changed the landscape for everyone. Many have wondered if the millennial generation would have the fortitude to usher in similar change.
Over the past three years, millennials have answered the call and have been leading change in major ways. Across the globe, we have seen them bring creativity in problem-solving, knowledge of technology and social media and how to use it in effective ways, and passion and initiative to question the way things are and even lead protests. Millennials know the current issues that need to be addressed and are not afraid to stand up and demand change while working hard to create it at the same time.
One revolution the world needs is in the workplace, and the millennial generation is posed to take the lead. The baby boomer generation is beginning to exit the workplace for retirement. The millennial generation is entering this void and will have a large voice in shaping the future of work for generations to come.
The System of the Past
Many of our key economic systems that worked for generations are totally outdated for the new world being created around us. Our education system needs analysis for how to set each individual up for the greatest success possible upon graduation. Our current school calendar may need rethinking. Geographically separated workforces in highly creative environments need the ability to make quick decisions, to think outside the box, and to create independently. Individualism is not fostered well in the matrix of our current system.
The promise of capitalism needs to be protected. Upon analysis of all economic systems tested around the world over the past two hundred years, capitalism and free enterprise stands alone as the one system that has proven it can lift entire nations out of poverty, inspire developments and advancement, and bring sustained quality of life to the majority of the population. However, left unchecked and unregulated, a virus can take hold within capitalism as people with confused values become greedy and focus on profits at all cost. This disease has the ability to topple the system and hinder the advancement of many people in society.
A common theme heard in business schools and in the halls of C-level executives is that the primary role of the CEO is to “increase shareholder value.” Some think they have the green light to do anything that would help increase the value of the investors’ stock. The question we have to ask is, “Do we increase profits at any cost? Is there a limit? How will this affect not just our stockholders, but society as a whole?” We have examples of companies like Enron who did a great job of increasing shareholder value for their investors . . . at the expense of the public. When the company went bankrupt in 2001 employees lost jobs, investors lost their investments, and it was learned that millions of Americans had been taken advantage of during the tenure of executives who became insane with greed and justified their actions of “trying to increase shareholder value.”
Our parents and grandparents entered a workforce having a social contract with their employers. Employees would be loyal and punch the time clock from nine to five each workday over what could very well be a lifetime. In return, the company would provide a steady salary, loyalty, health insurance, and retirement. Over time and in a search for profits, jobs were shipped overseas, companies downsized, retirements were taken away, people were given a 401k where all the retirement responsibility rested on the employee’s shoulders, and insurance was slowly reduced with co-pays and in many cases not available at all.
A Responsibility to Serve
We need an era of new social responsibility where companies understand that their role involves more than increasing shareholder value. We want companies to be successful, but not at the expense of employees, society, or the environment. Being socially responsible to all citizens in our midst is not only good for business but it is biblical. In Leviticus 23:22 the Lord commands, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.”
If God wanted us to maximize profits, He would have told us to glean to the edges and collect every last piece of grain. He, however, has a different plan. This was their version of welfare in the past. Food and provision were provided, but people had to work for it. It was not a handout. The landowner (business person) had the ability to provide for those in their midst by not maximizing profits but creating a system where some was left behind and others could be sustained. Should we think about some version of this system in a modern society? It may be worth discussing. To maximize profits and then afterward donate to charity or create welfare programs does benefit the poor, but it does not accomplish what this Leviticus passage is talking about. People get value and self-worth from the ability to work and provide service to society. One of the greatest gifts a business owner can provide is a job.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s research over the past few years has led them to report that we have entered a new era of the economy where technology is no longer advancing society. We have come to a point where we can automate just about everything and where technology is not creating but destroying jobs. What happens in society if the commonly held belief is that companies should increase shareholder profit at all cost while we have technology to automate everything? What happens is that companies can dramatically increase profits while making employees redundant. There must be a balance between profits and making sure those in our midst are able to provide for themselves and their families. Companies need to discuss what their social responsibility is, not only for the environment but for their employees and communities.
Millennials need to force this conversation to happen and guide it in the years to come. Are you okay living in a country where companies can lie and pollute the environment like VW? Are you okay with pharmaceutical companies like Turing—whose CEO Martin Shkreli was so focused on profits that he increased cancer drugs by 4,000 percent, increasing the cost of a single pill from $13.50 to over $750? These are the cancers of greed and injustice spreading in the current system that need to be rooted out and dealt with.
The Millennial-Led Workforce
Providing opportunities for those in our society and taking care of employees require us to change old paradigms in our human resources departments. The old economy valued and rewarded job loyalty and longevity and viewed with suspicion those with multiple jobs over a career. In today’s new economy, companies are hiring people for short assignments, meaning over a few years a young person could have worked for a number of companies. A millennial is predicted to have at least 8–14 different careers in their lifetime. As I speak at college campuses around the country I constantly hear millennials’ frustrations about companies wanting several years of experience before hiring, yet when an applicant can show they’ve had good work experience for multiple organizations, the hiring employer is skeptical of the amount of work experience and “short stints.” Our system should value quality of work, demonstrated excellence, critical thinking skills, flexibility, teamwork, ability to work various environments, problem solving, and creativity. These are more important than longevity in a job. I have actually heard millennials in leadership positions say they are suspicious of people who have stayed too long in one place, almost as if it is sign of lack of initiative and being too comfortable.
As companies have downsized it has become common for people to cover more than one role in their workplace. With the proliferation of technology that connects us to our jobs 24/7 from anywhere in the world, the 40-hour workweek is becoming a relic of the past. Employees are tethered to work late into the night and on weekends, and it bleeds into every area of life. The baby boomer generation did not have to deal with this for most of their career. They worked faithfully at their companies for decades from nine to five, many times in jobs they did not like but with the understanding they would retire at age 65 and live happily in retirement.
With that social contract now broken, the 40-hour workweek is becoming the 60-hour workweek of always being plugged in. More and more millennials are demanding work-life balance to be able to live separate lives from work. A recent Deloitte Workplace Survey cited 80 percent of respondents hated their work. The tide is turning, and people are demanding a change. Unplugging after hours is critical for work-life balance. The companies that are leading the charge in change are inspiring self-improvement and advocating healthy lifestyles with exercise and balance. This lifestyle not only benefits employees but reduces health care costs and missed work days.
As the workforce continues to change, the freelancer economy will continue to grow. It is estimated by Freelancers Union that over 53 million Americans (35 percent of the US workforce) work as freelancers in some capacity. Of those freelancers, 77 percent report that their best days are ahead while 32 percent saw growth over the previous year. Companies have downsized and are utilizing freelancers to skirt healthcare laws and to employ a more nimble and mobile workforce. If your organization is using freelancers, this gives you the opportunity to see if you could participate in a flex schedule that works better for your lifestyle. Some people are asking to work 4/10s, or four ten-hour days, to have a three-day weekend. Some people are moving their schedules around so they can drop off their children at school and pick them up after. Some employees, like those of the call center of Jet Blue, work from home. The freelancer revolution should inspire you to do two things: First, look for ways to generate a second income doing what you love for other companies. Second, look for ways to have a flex schedule that improves your quality of life and work-life balance.
As this new economy is built around us, it is important to ensure that the changes we usher in are beneficial both for the employees and for the companies. This symbiotic relationship should always be win-win. Millennials are in a unique position to enter the workforce and have positions of influence right when the world is undergoing massive structural change. Don’t waste this moment in history to make change that will benefit generations to come. A workplace revolution is needed to ensure companies are good stewards of the environment, their employees, and the communities in which they serve. We need to make companies with a profit-at-all-cost mentality a relic of the past. Companies that abuse people and the environment should be held accountable and should not be rewarded in the new economy. With wise use of technology, transparency, and activism, I believe the millennial generation will be able to reform the workplace like no generation before them has had the ability to do.