Robert Reich, Professor and former Secretary of Labor, delivered an impassioned address to his final Wealth and Poverty class on the transition from college into the workforce. He asked his students to reflect on their values and experiences to consider a question posed by the poet Mary Oliver:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Reich turns his attention to focus on the career opportunities which await his students. “The career ladder in most senses, and in most meaningful ways, has disappeared,” Reich says. The ladder he reimagines is a spiral – a path of differing responsibilities, varying skill sets, non-linear growth – a constant flux.
This fluidity, which Reich frames as the new norm, has clearly shifted the ways in which employers conceptualize employee retention, and provided endless content for listicles with creative titles such as: You’ve Got Millennial Employees All Wrong; Here Are The Four Things You Need To Know Now and Here’s How Often Millennial Employees Need Compliments (every seven days – mark your calendars, please).
Whether this content is accurate or insightful is largely irrelevant. The focus on millennials as an anomalous subgroup, defying social expectations and requiring nurturing employers (who hold to a proper compliment cadence), is misguided and reflective of the discomfort of change.
Change is driven by necessity, not by grievances isolated to a given generation. We’ve recognized the failures of our institutions and not only do we demand change, we work for it. Reich recognizes this:
“You don’t have to be a Secretary of Labor, you don’t have to be a President of the United States to be a leader. Leadership starts with you – it starts now.”
Recognizing systemic failures, and integrating this recognition with the passion, wisdom, and leadership of a young generation into institutional practice is no simple task. Action rooted in an understanding of past failures, with hope for a brighter future, must be a constant, arduous process of vulnerability and trust.
As CSR departments expand, and workplace giving programs become ubiquitous, it is crucial for these efforts to be rooted in trust – in the belief that leadership can come from below. An organization which is embedded in the community, supports employees’ growth and expression, and does not solely prioritize profit, must inevitably act in socially responsible ways to hold true to its values. As such, workplace giving cannot take root in a listicled belief that millennials crave feel-good fuzziness. Workplace giving is an instance of democratized philanthropic capital and rests on the belief that the decisions made by individuals hold value above the decision of any one individual.
I did not attend Reich’s lecture, yet the interdependencies of wealth and poverty are clear. The time to shift from a focus on millennials’ desires to focus on social necessity is now. Workplace giving programs hold potential for great impact; however, workplace giving should serve as only one of the many ways in which a company channels resources for social benefit. Workplace giving can serve as a launchpad to empower grassroots leadership and amplify the voices of all stakeholders (employees, community members, etc.). From there can begin the arduous and necessary process of ingraining socially responsible practices into all aspects of operation.