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Guest Thinkers

Millennials Have (and Need) Big Problems to Solve.


Whole Foods has been a corporate pioneer in evolving its “higher purpose.” John Mackey, its visionary CEO, explains that the Millennial generation was born to engage, and overcome, lofty challenges.

Watch the video here:

What’s the Big Idea?

 A recent study found that Millennials––the generation born between 1981 and 2000––are generally dissatisfied with their jobs and disaffected with their long-term career prospects. Offered a better opportunity, Millennials are significantly more likely than previous generations to jump ship. This wariness to commit is understandable. The economy’s in recession, salaries are stagnant, employee benefits have been scaled back . . . but John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, sees in all this the birth pangs of a Brave New World:

I think our culture; the collective American culture is going through a period of transformation. A lot of the things that America has done for a while now aren’t working. I’m watching disintegration occur around me.

And yet:

Every generation tries to solve problems that its parents’ generation was unable to solve. It’s kind of their job. And I think that the Millennial Generation is a generation that for it to completely fulfill itself, it’s going to have to take on big goals.

Young people in America today face tougher challenges than their Baby Boomer parents did, Mackey argues. The prosperity and stability the country enjoyed after World War II is no longer guaranteed. “And in order for humanity to continue to evolve and advance, in order for America not to disintegrate, we’re dependent on the young to innovate, to create, to be entrepreneurs; to make their lives count for something.”

As they come to adulthood in a world full of heroic challenges, Mackey believes, millennials will rise to meet them. Whole Foods’ staff is almost 50% millennials, and Mackey describes those he has met as highly creative, collaborative, communicative, and pragmatic––a rare blend of qualities that will give this generation the strength and flexibility it needs to rebuild a smarter America.

What’s the Significance?

Rather than wringing their hands over young people’s fecklessness, educators, politicians, CEOs, and other leaders of this rising generation must learn to engage its need for a higher purpose by setting lofty and meaningful goals. Schools must make explicit connections between cellular biology and humanity’s future. Presidential candidates must offer bold solutions to our long-term problems. Corporations must invest sincerely in the well-being of all of their stakeholders, not only of their stockholders.

This is not a dog-and-pony show. As Whole Foods’ evolution demonstrates, what animates millennials––global sustainability, work-life balance, commitment to a higher purpose––benefits everybody, stockholders included. Ironically, what may appear at first like a management challenge to retain employees, get votes, or keep kids from dropping out of school is actually an opportunity to reexamine ourselves and absorb the wisdom of those who haven’t yet learned what isn’t possible.

This post is part of a series called “Inside Employees’ Minds” presented by Mercer.


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