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It was recently claimed that: “for millennials … social responsibility is the new religion.” Indeed, in the US, 7 in 10 young adults claim to be social activists, whilst 50% of them donate time to a cause they care about. It seems that caring is cool.
No longer the preserve of radical outsiders, fighting for a better world is a mainstream preoccupation that concerns an entire generation.
This force for good has in part arisen due to the global economic downturn and the resulting decline of trust in institutions. Consequently Millennials are taking back control of the world they live in and re-shaping it according to their values.
What sets Millennials apart from previous generations of social activists though, is their distinctly digital approach. As the first generation to come of age in the 21st century, online connectivity underpins their very existence. Some have accused the youth of today of political apathy because, ‘Occupy’ aside, they don’t take to the streets like the Boomers back in the day. Yet Gen Y has harnessed the power of social media and other online platforms to grow and spread their sense of social purpose
Take, for instance, sites such as Upworthy and PolicyMic; news platforms that encourage the sharing of meaningful content by formatting it into Millennial-friendly, image-rich, bite-sized chunks or videos. Then there’s the rise of ‘clicktivism’ through the likes of Ryot News and 38 degrees, which simplify petitioning down to a simple click.
So Millennials want to save the world: duly noted.
But it doesn’t stop there. Not only do they want to fight for good, they want the companies and brands they buy from to do the same. In an interview with the Huffington Post, David Burstein, author of "Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World," said that reaching Millennials requires a real investment in social responsibility because they are ‘extremely conscious of their values’. CSR doesn’t automatically make you the good guy any more. It’s not a box to tick or a quick route to some positive PR. It’s become a hygiene factor and plays a crucial role in purchase decisions: a third of young adults in the US boycott or support businesses based on the causes they care about, and 4 out of 5 activists would be more likely to purchase from a company that supports a cause they care about. Commitment to a cause is the lifeblood of business according to this generation.
Beware though: CSR-washing won’t withstand the scrutiny of a generation who hold these values at their very core. Brands must be prepared to get fully on board with this agenda if they want to resonate with the Millennial market. Authenticity is vital. As Shane Smith, co-founder of Vice says: ‘Gen Y have the best bullshit filters in the world.’
So what’s the key to avoiding being filtered out?
The general consensus is that social responsibility must be baked in rather than bolted on. There is no credibility in a token philanthropic initiative that is programmatic or short-lived. To demonstrate true dedication to Gen Y values companies must acknowledge that every element of their business affects its external relationships. Therefore, a CSR strategy is required that is deeply integrated in the operations of everyday business and infiltrates every link in the chain. It’s no good being responsible in one area but not in others. This is all or nothing.
And given that Millennials currently account for close to a quarter of the UK population - making them the largest generation in history – ‘nothing’ seems like an unwise choice.
Not only do they wield immense collective power due to their numbers, but if Millennials don’t like what they see these digital natives will hack the system and circumvent brands altogether. Just look to the rapid rise of peer–to-peer services such as Airbnb, Bitcoin or Kickstarter. Moreover, one bad review will spread like wildfire through such a hyper-connected generation.
This isn’t breaking news; many companies are already aboard the CSR train. But to really resonate with Millennials, you have to truly mean what you say and believe in what you do. Anything less would be making a mockery of their ‘religion’.
This article was published by Claudia Bhugra-Schmid, Cultural Analyst, Adjust Your Set