Millennials Can Help Develop Your Organization's Purpose

06/24/2015 05:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016
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Having been born in 1971, I'm smack in the middle of the GenX cohort age bracket. Translation? I'm halfway between contempt for all that the Baby Boomers have achieved (and partially screwed up) and all that is made of the Millennials via their mainstream-media depicted "saviour of the Western world" taxonomy.

I've become the middle child. I'm not used to this at all.

Even though I've been tattooed by author Douglas Coupland as a member of the GenX cohort, born between 1965 and 1981, I've grown somewhat weary if not leery of those in my age bracket, accurately depicted by their pessimistic, itching to outdo yet often skeptical behavior in films such as Reality Bites, Singles or Fight Club. The brooding, nihilistic and jaded attitude of many GenXers (but certainly not all) has become a bit too much for my liking. I think I'm ready for a brand change, but not like the disaster that was New Coke.

Because I am one of them -- those cantankerous GenXers -- it's going to take a lot more mindfulness and meditating to undo my own DNA. (In fact, I may have to steal my son's singing bowl.)

Part of my interest these days lies squarely with a Millennial's disposition. This is the cohort of Earth's citizens born between 1981 and 2000. My brother, Adam, for example, is a Millennial, born 14 years after me to the same parents. Through his teens and early 20s, I didn't understand why his attitude was so "half full" when he encountered life's unpredictable yet certain potholes and storm clouds. I didn't understand why he gave so much to whoever needed it.

I've grown to appreciate my brother's rather easy going and giving attitude, and have become rather envious as he inches into his 30s and I into my mid-40s. In hindsight, I feel as though I've missed out on a decade of happier times when I was in my 20s. My natural temperament was to judge and find fault and compete, arguably any GenXer's chromosome deficiency. Adam has always been one that naturally produces smiles and understanding in both the darkest and lightest of times. He has often battled the bumps of life in the company of others, asking for assistance whenever needed. He also gives with his head and his heart, something many Millennials naturally do, often without thinking about it.

Of course my wife, Denise, and I are raising "goats," which are of course our "kids," The homemade herding is providing me with another anthropological inquiry. The "kids" are classified as Generation Z by some, born between 2001 and 2015. So far, whilst they are certainly tech savvy, they're also exhibiting far more collaborative and sharing-like behaviours than I ever remember exhibiting during the 1980s. Their competitive streak seems to be higher than their "blue ribbon" Millennial counterparts, but on the surface it might be that they're a generational mash-up of Baby Boomers and Millennials. Mind you, I think it's only the good bits.


But what I really am smitten with as it concerns the Millennials, is their general penchant for sharing, giving and selflessness. It's not all of them, mind you, but their overarching disposition seems to be one of altruism.

Their keen interest in experiences and opportunities versus prestige, luxuries or status is not only noble, it's a hallmark of what I call the Purpose Mindset. These are some of the traits I believe could help our organizations become more engaged. These are the traits that might instill a greater sense of purpose in the organization itself.

A Millennial's desire for the firms they work for to put purpose and people ahead of power and profit is rather exemplary. Aside from my own observations and research, Deloitte proves the point rather gloriously.

In their annual Millennial Survey - results taken from 7,806 people across 29 countries - the firm sought a Millennial's opinion regarding an organization's leadership abilities and the impact it delivers on society. Given the Millennial cohort will comprise roughly 46% of the labor force by 2020, it behoves an organization's senior leadership team (arguably made up mostly of Gen X and Baby Boomers) to better understand what makes this cohort tick. Millennials are going to redesign the purpose of the organization anyhow, so if GenXers and Baby Boomers don't get a move on, they simply better get out of the way.

What Did Deloitte Uncover?

Tellingly, 75 percent of Millennials believe, "Businesses are focused on their own agendas rather than helping to improve society." Put differently, if Millennials are about to make up half of an organization's population, at least 38% of the employees will be vehemently against the company's existing mission, beliefs and operating practices. As the report indicates, Millennials are sending a signal to redefine the definition of business, "Suggesting that the pursuit of a different and better way of operating in the 21st century begins by redefining leadership."

Perhaps a new purpose to the organization could come in handy.

As the now-former CEO of Deloitte Global, Barry Salzberg, notes in the report:

Millennials are just as interested in how a business develops its people and its contribution to society as they are in its products and profits.

But maybe the lack of purpose in today's organizations isn't the concern of only the Millennial cohort after all. Public relations firm Edelman, for example, discovered interesting results in its 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer research. Edelman annually surveys over 33,000 people across 27 countries asking questions about their trust in the institutions of government, media, business and non-governmental organizations. The survey addresses employees from all generations. What struck me, however, was when the firm asked about the pace and drivers of change.

Put differently, do employees from any level in the organization have faith (or trust) with where society is headed? Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case.

When it came to how employees felt with respect to the pace of change in the organization, respondents answered as follows:

  • 51 percent felt it was too fast
  • 28 percent felt it was too slow
  • 19 percent felt it was just right

More tellingly was when Edelman asked respondents what they felt were the perceived drivers of change in their place of work. Respondents answered as follows:

  • 70% said technology
  • 66 percent said business growth targets
  • 54 percent said greed/money
  • 35 percent said personal ambition
  • 30 percent said to improve people's lives
  • 24 percent said to make the world a better place

To summarize, half of the world's employees - regardless of age - feel as though greed, money and financial growth targets were the purpose of the organization, and only a quarter believe an organization's main purpose is to improve the lives of people or to make society a better place.

While the Edelman data is impressive, actions speak louder than words. It's one thing for employees to fill in a survey to voice their opinion as part of an anonymous survey, it's another to take action and put your feet where your head lies.

Millennials are not the perfect generation, for no generation is or ever will be. (Millennials, in fact, can't use Excel, Outlook or Google Search very effectively, crumpling the myth of "Digital Natives.")

But what they are doing infinitely better than GenX and the Baby Boomers is pushing society to actually put purpose on par with profit. I define the Purpose Mindset as:

"Individuals who are passionate, innovative and committed to a meaningful and engaging workplace that serves all stakeholders. ~The Purpose Mindset"

This seems to be the epitome of a Millennial's DNA in the organizations where they work.

If only GenX and the Baby Boomers - the holders of many senior leadership roles today - could learn from this Purpose Mindset, perhaps we'd all be better off. For the sake of my three Generation Z children, I hope it's changed by the time they arrive in the office.


Dan Pontefract is the author of FLAT ARMY: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization and is Chief Envisioner at TELUS Transformation Office. His next book, DUAL PURPOSE: Redefining the Meaning of Work, will publish November 10, 2015.