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Will Tomorrow’s Leaders Care About Anything?

Millennials have been painted as overly comfortable and lacking in passion, but may still have an interest in bettering the world.

By Vikram Mansharamani, PhD

Earlier this spring, I invited legendary Yale Administrator Sam Chauncey to join my Business Ethics class and share his thoughts on tomorrow’s leaders. As one who helped steer the university through the turbulent 1960s, brought coeducation to Yale in the 1970s, and has addressed graduates from the class of 1913 through the class of 2018, Sam brings an unrivaled perspective to any discussion.

His ultimate message was simple: today’s young adults seem “comfortable” and lack the passion for causes that typified earlier eras. They lack outrage. They don’t appear to be willing to risk personal harm. Was he right? And if so, what does this imply about the role of whistleblowing going forward? Will tomorrow’s informants of corruption, the champions of transparency, be too fat and happy to care?

To care is dangerous and generates personal risk. From the 1864 False Claims Act signed by Abraham Lincoln through modern corporate whistleblower protection policies, Americans have long sought to protect those who surface hidden wrongdoing. But what if tomorrow’s leaders lack the moral outrage so essential to taking those risks?

Rather than push back against Sam’s suggestion, my students explained it. Here’s a statement that typified their reactions: “Sure we care about the fumbled Iraq conflict, but since there’s no military draft anymore, we’re not bothered enough to do anything about it. It’s just not that personal or real to us.”

So I tried to make it directly relevant and asked about economic inequality, building on an earlier student comment about the “ludicrous” compensation of today’s corporate leaders. Again, most in the room weren’t bothered by CEOs earning small fortunes; in fact, many aspired to be those well-compensated executives.

Is this general lack of outrage merely a reflection of the modern Millennial mindset? As many of us who regularly interact with young adults know, they’re not the same as prior generations, in large part because they are products of aggressive parenting, personally felt the global financial crisis, and are natives in the land of ubiquitous Internet and social media technologies.

First, they were raised by Baby Boomers and had more structured and individualized upbringings. Millennials were coddled, nurtured, and hyper-parented. As noted by demographer Neil Howe, family values were ascendant while rates of divorce, abortion, and violence against children fell steadily, “Baby on Board” signs proliferated, and child-friendly minivans emphasizing safety sold briskly.

Millennial workplace expert Lindsey Pollak notes, “Many Millennials were carefully coached in organized sports and other activities, and they received trophies for participating—not necessarily for winning. Their parents, teachers, and culture celebrated their creativity and potential…. As a result, Millennials crave recognition, feedback, and rewards.”

Second, the global financial crisis weighs heavily on their economic sensibilities and, as such, they make different choices. Not surprisingly, this has spurred analysis from the Federal Reserve and the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, among others. The data suggest Millennials are more risk-averse than prior generations at similar stages of life. Perhaps because of record student loan debt, they also tend to be less likely to have credit card, auto, or mortgage debt.

This risk aversion may also explain their desire for professional stability. Bentley University research has found that 72 percent of Millennials are comfortable working in large corporations, and a Brookings report found that Google, Apple, Facebook, the US State Department, and Disney are deemed the most desirable employers by Millennials. Ninety percent think being an entrepreneur is about a mindset rather than starting a company.

And third, Millennials grew up with ubiquitous technology and social media. They don’t know a world without screens. This technology orientation and comfort means that, generally speaking, in-person social skills are not as developed in today’s young adults as they were in prior generations. It means Millennials can and do feel intimately connected with social media relationships and, to them, online interactions are as meaningful as offline ones are to others.

Because they’re constantly connected, Millennials are as likely to reply to professional emails on the weekend as they are to post personal pictures to Facebook while at work. Personal and professional distinctions blur. Davis Nguyen, a recent Yale graduate, notes that he and his peers are “moving away from life-work balance and towards life-work integration.…We want to find meaning in all parts of our lives.”

Although these three characteristics point to a risk-averse Millennial culture oriented towards recognition, personal financial safety, and fulfilling work-life relationships, that’s not the complete story. If it were, I would have titled this article “The Forthcoming Death of Whistleblowing.”

Millennials also express strong support for certain causes, such as same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana, and giving undocumented immigrants legal status. Sixty-three percent of them want their employer to contribute to social and ethical causes they deem important, and given that support for such causes generates professional satisfaction, it’s not surprising that 64 percent would rather make $40,000 per year at a job they love than $100,000 per year at a job they think is boring, according to a 2014 study by The Intelligence Group.

Today’s young adults also fit the profile of likely whistleblowers quite well. They tend to have high self-esteem, care both about themselves and causes, and are supported by a strong network of family and friends outside the professional workspace.

Just think of Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Millennial who worked for Google in Dubai before returning to Cairo in 2010 to support the revolution. He used social media to organize protests against torture, corruption, unemployment, and injustice, and he did so at significant personal risk. At one point, he was captured by Egyptian police and held in prison for 11 days. Upon his release, he returned to Tahrir Square and increased his efforts, willing to die for the cause. Shortly thereafter, the Egyptian regime that had been in power for decades fell and, in 2011, Time magazine named Wael as one of The 100 Most Influential People in the World. At the time, he was 30 years old.

I suspect there is a little bit of Wael in every Millennial, and I hope they remain focused on making the world a better place. After all, by 2025, they will represent more than 75 percent of the US workforce. They may seem entitled, self-oriented, and more concerned with their social media interactions than moving out of their parents’ homes, but they also care deeply about certain causes, don’t distinguish between personal and professional time, and are self-confident and highly connected. Just as Churchill said of the Russians, today’s young adults are “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

It’s essential we also recall the rest of Churchill’s statement. He went on to say, “but perhaps there is a key; that key is Russia’s national interest.” So while Millennials may appear to lack the outrage of prior generations, they also appear to have an interest in a better world and will likely be as dedicated to fighting corruption as prior generations. Let’s hope, for our sake and theirs, that Sam’s suggestion proves inaccurate.

Author Biography:

Vikram Mansharamani is a Lecturer at Yale University in the Program on Ethics, Politics, & Economics and a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has taught courses on Business Ethics, Financial Bubbles, and Economic Inequality and is the author of Boombustology: Spotting Financial Bubbles Before They Burst. He has a PhD and MS from the MIT Sloan School of Management, an MS in Political Science from MIT, and a BA in East Asian Studies from Yale University.


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This article was featured in the Q3 2015 issue of Ethisphere Magazine. To subscribe and learn more about Ethisphere Magazine click here.

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