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Though Socially Conscious, Generation Z Remains Practical

A woman in glasses is using a tablet computer.

​Although members of Generation Z are perhaps more focused on social issues than any prior generation, they may also be among the most practical. New research has revealed that young Americans prioritize earnings above other factors when looking for work. But this emphasis on economic stability may be partially due to their perception that employers' efforts to improve society have been lackluster.

Economic Considerations Reign Supreme

Economic considerations are the primary driver of young people's decisions about where to work, according to a new survey of 1,000 people ages 18-30 by the Cause and Social Influence Initiative, a program that tracks how young people respond to social issues. More than one-third (36 percent) of respondents said that salary or wages are their top priority, followed by employee benefits (23 percent). Only 8 percent ranked the organization's contributions to the community as most important.

The survey asked employees of nonprofit organizations about their motivations and found similar results: 37 percent of nonprofit workers prioritize benefits, while 31 percent prioritize earnings. Meanwhile, the importance of the organization's mission around the world, in the United States and to people in the local community scored much lower (14, 10 and 10 percent, respectively).

That's not to say that social issues aren't important to young people. The survey also found that they are getting involved beyond just signing online petitions. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they have donated professional services to causes they believe in (i.e., services they normally would be paid for, given their skills and expertise).

Pessimism on Economic, Social Issues

Young workers' pragmatism may be due to a combination of their outlook on economic and social issues and their belief that businesses have failed to make a real impact. The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey found that 40 percent of Generation Z members believe the economic situation around the world will worsen by 2022—up 10 points from a year ago and 13 points from 2018. Millennials are even more pessimistic: 43 percent see economic conditions worsening, up 10 points from 2020 and 19 points from 2018.

The survey, which polled over 14,600 Millennials and over 8,200 Generation Z members, revealed similar perceptions about social and political situations. Forty-one percent of both Generation Z and Millennials expect these factors to worsen by next year—the highest number Deloitte has recorded since it began tracking this data in 2018.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of Generation Z and Millennial respondents see business as having a positive impact on society. "This is the first time since we've been running this survey that it's fallen below 50 percent," explained Emma Codd, global inclusion leader for Deloitte. "[Millennials and Gen Z members] are very clear about what their priorities and their concerns are in life, and I think for those employers that don't try and marry the two, that's going to be a challenge."

A majority of both Millennials and Generation Z members (70 and 69 percent, respectively) believe that businesses prioritize their own agendas over the good of society, and most (62 and 59 percent) also believe that businesses have no ambition beyond making money. However, Deloitte also noted that these are not peak numbers for either of these categories, suggesting that both groups are slightly less pessimistic than they were in prior years.

Simply put, employers may need to improve their brand for young people. While many businesses have taken on initiatives to improve that perception—such as broad diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) plans and commitments to reduce carbon emissions—they need to make sure those undertakings are felt throughout the entire organization.

"We don't do that a lot," said Josh Packard, Ph.D., executive director of the Springtide Research Institute, a Bloomington, Minn.-based research firm that focuses on young people's life experiences. "The research on this is pretty clear about how organizational missions and visions don't really trickle down much past the executive level. They're very under-communicated, and I think this is really a point in time where you want to enact that at every level of the company."

Facing Discrimination at Work

If young people are skeptical about their employers' commitment to social progress, it may boil down to their own experiences at work. Many businesses have been scrutinized for making broad statements about DE&I over the past year but still have work to do in improving their own practices and policies. The Deloitte survey found that nearly a quarter of both Millennials and Generation Z workers feel they've been discriminated against at work.

Race and ethnicity were the primary reasons people cited as causes for discrimination; 39 percent of Generation Z members and 36 percent of Millennials who identify as ethnic minorities say they have been discriminated against "all the time" or frequently at work. Sexual orientation is also a key factor; about 30 percent of LGBTQ individuals have also experienced discrimination.

Codd noted that employers will need to do more to protect their employees from discrimination and show a true commitment to a diverse, equitable workplace. If they don't, not only will the employees suffer, but so will the company.

"A number of them are saying, 'I have experienced discrimination within my own workplace based on something to do with my background or the way I identify,'" she said. "That will drive decisions. If you believe that your organization is not doing enough around diversity and inclusion, then that is going to drive your loyalty and your engagement."

[Want to learn more about how you can support your Generation Z employees? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]


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