The We-Me Conundrum

“I really care about society and the environment, and all the things we should do.  I really do.  But still, it’s all about me.”

That’s how many of us hear our younger employees (and students and perhaps our own children). We’re tempted to snicker and dismiss their hypocrisy.  On reflection, maybe they are no different than us in wanting “win-win” solutions that are good for society and the environment, and good for them personally.  Maybe what’s different is their resistance to giving up, and their willingness to work harder to create those win-win solutions.

Georgetown University Professor Christine Porath recently prompted those thoughts.  She spoke to a group of corporate EHS and sustainability officers on “The People Challenge: Creating Sustainable Performance.”   In her presentation, drawing on Ron Alsop’s “The Trophy Kids Grow Up“, she noted that the Millennial generation now makes up 25% of the US workforce.  That generation shows “some contradictory attitudes and behaviors … [including] all about me vs. strong concern for social & environmental issues, community service.”  In the audience, we nodded and laughed knowingly.

Professor Porath’s presentation and our subsequent conversation drove me to think about this we-me conundrum.  I looked back at my recent experiences with younger employees, my grown children, and seven years of (statistically-insignificant) data and discussions with my undergraduate students at Northwestern University.

Those data and conversations suggest that the Millenials are just like us, except maybe they try a little harder.  When the we-me motivations fit together easily, Millenials act.  When the we-me motivations conflict, Millenials struggle and rationalize.   Instead of giving up, though, they seem highly motivated try to find or even create options that satisfy both “we and me”.

Not surprisingly, my students embrace win-win options that apparently have social and environmental value, and make them feel better or look better to their peers (so-called “badge” value).  They buy organic foods, Patagonia clothes and reusable water bottles.  They volunteer for service activities with friends. When they buy cars, they don’t buy gas-guzzler cars; they see these as bad for the environment and besides, the students can’t afford gas prices. They cut back on heavily processed food that they fear may include exposure to toxics.  And some of them do talk about it more than they act – what one respected Millenial colleague calls the “hippier than thou attitude.”

Like many of us, they struggle if they feel that the common interest conflicts with what they really want to do (good for “me”, bad for “we”).   Information suddenly gets less accessible and less clear.  Don’t buy that neat fancy new electronic device because of issues with labor upstream or e-waste downstream? What issues? Year after year, my students with unprecedented instant access to information (often using those same new devices) profess ignorance about the environmental or social impacts of electronics.  Information that we all have at our fingertips somehow becomes inaccessible or untrustworthy.  Strange, doesn’t that sound like much of the climate change debate?

The most interesting pattern is how hard Millenials are willing to work to seek or even create those win-win outcomes.  Confronted with their own choices and a little guidance on sources, they become avid consumers of consumer guides and life-cycle assessments (though vigilant skeptics about greenwashing).  They openly question their own information and decision filters. Particularly in career choices, they actively look for options that are good for them – even if not the best for them – and also fit “what we should do”.  Looking out five to ten years after college, in a still-difficult economy, many are still willing to make hard choices – including taking lower salaries and downscaling apartments and cars – to create those outcomes.  Some even bring those decision filters into the workplace: “They really feel like their jobs have to define their ideals,” notes my Millenial colleague.  This creates challenging conversations about which clients and projects they will work on.

I tested this We-Me model with my latest crop of students, inviting them to challenge it or even be offended by it.  Instead, they agreed.  One student named Sam Hazlett even wrote me to say:

I think it’s a very effective model that gets right to the core of the fundamental issue in society when it comes to the environment- We vs. I. The fundamental problem in society that perpetuates environmental problems is the fact that if one person hurts themselves to help the environment, then everyone else is likely not doing that so it’s like game theory in a way. I like that the model takes consumer responsibility into account ….

The lesson for companies, both as employers and marketers?  Don’t let yourself show up in the wrong quadrants in the model.  Don’t be the “high conflict” option.  Don’t be the employer whose prospective recruits see you as the “good for me, bad for we” choice. If you want to win with the generation that now makes up 25% of our workforce, make yourself the positive “we-me” option – or give them the opportunity to create that option.

If we do that, we may be able to tap some incredible energy in our employees – and future customers.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]