Millennials and Ethical Ambition

When Gallup published its periodic State of the American Workplace study this year (Gallup, 2017), much of the report centered on the mindset of the largest segment of the working population: Millennials. Less responsive to the usual P-3 inducements (pay, power, and position), these 17- to 35-year-old workers demand a sense of purpose and life synergy from their jobs – which is all the proof many Baby Boomers nearing retirement need that Millennials are actually space aliens sent here to destroy planet earth. For many Leadership scholars, however, this concept of a job transcending a paycheck links to something quite earthly – what American jurist Derrick Bell has called a life of “ethical ambition."

What is Ethical Ambition?

In his 1982 book-length essay entitled, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, Bell discussed the seemingly paradoxical challenges between living a life of ambition while following an ethical path (Bell, 2002). As an esteemed law professor at Harvard, Oregon, and New York universities, Bell had left multiple tenured positions in protest over discrimination against other professors. This “passion for integrity” sunk him into significant periods of economic uncertainty, only to be followed by greater financial success later. More importantly for Bell, these choices gave him a life-long sense of peace in knowing that he did not have to compromise his soul for a mortgage.

Millennials want what Bell has. Millennials want positions with a sense of purpose, the flexibility to fit that job into their lives, and the removal of what Bell describes as, “…that artificial dividing line between Work and Life.” According to Gallup, they are willing to abandon higher-paying positions to erase that line; in fact, less than half of Gallup’s Millennial respondents named income as a driving force in professional choices. Hope and growth are central to them, however, with over half choosing lower-paying jobs with a chance to grow and develop over higher-paying, low-growth jobs. Organizations seeking to hang onto their Millennial high performers need the cultural integrity to show consistent, tangible support for these ideals, demonstrating that, as Bell said:

“Passion is not an event, but an energy…an energy that exists in all of us, all the time.”

Why Millennials Want Purpose

Gallup's study gives us the “what” behind the Millennial mindset without the “why." But a partial answer can be found in their Generation X (Gen X) parents. Gen X parents experienced the go-go ‘90s and the economic trauma of the “dot com” meltdown that followed. Embracing globalization and a new-found connection to the world, they also adjusted to a crowded, post-Cold War world in which American influence and security were not always guaranteed. Growing up as the first generation of latchkey kids, they were more likely to coddle their Millennial children.

Millennials and their Gen X parents collectively suffered through the economic fractures of the “Great Recession," many Millennials staying home well into adulthood while watching as their senior-management parents became the first to lose their jobs in the triage. Millennials emerged from this upheaval with a collective identity beyond their micro lives, a keen awareness of the fragility of the bottom line, and a resistance to settling for unattractive choices.

Embracing Millennials' Attitude

Approaching Millennials as simply a social Rubix cube (a fad waiting to pass) could harken the end of any firm seeking to grow in the 21st Century marketplace. The oldest Millennials are already flooding the ranks of middle management, with meaningful power to shape their environments. There is no waiting them out, since their desires for ethical ambition, flexibility, and a life worth imagining will be born into the values with which Millennials raise their own children. Rather than staring in perplexed wonder at how to satisfy Millennial workers, the dominant 21st Century organization will grab Bell’s ethical ambition as a mission statement. For organizations with the cultural integrity to actualize what Millennials and Bell desire, there will be no limits.

Written By: Greta Creech, Manager of Client Analytics at MasterMinds Leadership

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