I have a background in marketing, branding, and social media. I’ve developed consumer personas of millennial and gen Z buyers, led rebranding meetings to capture a younger audience, and I’m a millennial consumer myself.
This summer, I quit a marketing job in order to recover from burnout, begin a coaching practice, and pursue a career in nonprofit communications. And one of the things that is front and center in my job search is making sure that any organization I work for aligns with my personal values.
Turns out, that’s a pretty typical millennial thing to do.
Millennials and Gen Z Respond to Brands’ Ethics
One of the most frustrating* things about Millennials is the way we keep senselessly destroying industries, products, and norms. We killed Applebee’s, we killed canned tuna, we killed styrofoam cups, we killed gym memberships. (*sarcasm)
I wrote the following excerpt two years ago but it still stands — and has evolved to include an even bigger focus on social justice and ethical integrity of brands.
This blatant and ubiquitous finger pointing is one more attempt to accuse us of ruining the fun for everyone else, despite the fact that industries change over time and maybe your product has simply reached the end of its time to shine. Do you see Apple out there whining that nobody buys an iPod Shuffle anymore? Hell no! Apple gets with the times and offers new, better, on-trend offerings. And when we’ve all got our cell phones directly embedded into our brains or our forearms or whatever the future holds, they’ll come up with something else.
Did millennials destroy huge tube television sets, or did technology improve to the point where flat screens are accessible and affordable? Did millennials destroy desktop computers, or have developments in laptops and tablets offered a more realistic solution for people to take their work on the go? Did we destroy USB drives, or did Google and Apple perfect cloud technology?
Why is it so much easier to point at a whole generation of young adults and say “Oh my God, they killed JCPenney” than it is to realistically grasp the concept that technology and societal needs change over time? For each thing “destroyed” by millennials, take a look around and see if something else has developed in its place.
We’re killing restaurants but giving rise to meal subscription services.
We’re killing grocery store chains while promoting low-overhead online alternatives like Thrive Market and Brandless.
We’re killing diamonds and jewelers, instead supporting a robust network of Etsy sellers who offer their handmade wares from across the globe.
So what does this mean, for consumerism, for capitalism, and for the economy at large? Are millennials wielding their mighty collective Twitter presence to destroy the way we buy things and exchange money for goods and services? You betcha.Excerpt from The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation by Caitlin Fisher, May 2019
Over half of young consumers (55%) have participated in Black Lives Matter protests, activism, and awareness, as reported by Y Pulse. And these consumers want their purchases to reflect their values. Sixty-nine percent of millennial and gen Z consumers surveyed think that brands should be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s incredibly clear that youth brands need to be participating in supporting this cause right now. In fact, as Business Insider reports, many are telling influencers and celebrities that if they aren’t posting to show support of Black Lives Matter, they should cease posting completely. Brands are likely to be viewed in the same light, and those who sat on the sidelines or ignored this historic moment will not be remembered kindly by young consumers.Y Pulse: Most Young Consumers Want Brands to Support #BlackLivesMatter – Here’s How
And simply trotting out an empty line about support isn’t enough. We want to see action, money, and resources supporting the cause. We want transparency about how many people of color, women, queer folx, and other marginalized people are in executive leadership. We want to know where people of color are working — salary positions in the office, or hourly labor positions? And when you tell us, we want to know what you’re doing about the discrepancies now that you see them more clearly.
Consumers, many of whom have donated hundreds of dollars to these causes, are asking for more, and they’ve made it clear that corporate praise will be harder to come by — especially if organizations are not transparent in their commitments and hesitant to open their purses.Vox: Consumers don’t care about corporate solidarity. They want donations.
Forbes is tracking corporate contributions to the BLM movement, with many well-known brands making the list with financial contributions to organizations and grassroots campaigns. But money isn’t enough if it isn’t accompanied by action — for example, Facebook made a financial contribution and a statement about Black Lives Matter, but regularly censors and removes posts from Black writers and activists that speak out against white supremacy or police brutality, while posts from white supremacists and far-right extremists are left alone and reports dismissed, while algorithms steer people to their harmful content.* (*Content note: This New York Times article makes a fatphobic reference to fast food companies and obesity.)
With millennials wielding an estimated $2.5 trillion in annual spending power, brands need to follow that money to stay relevant. More and more, we’re seeing brands that used to choose neutrality quickly switching gears to course correct when confronted with discriminatory company history.
It’s refreshing, as a millennial who has witnessed years of eyeroll-worthy headlines about the crumbling diamond industry, to see the collective realization of large companies that the future is millennial and gen Z.
The tide of consumerism and brand loyalty is changing. While brand loyalty used to mean only ever buying one brand of toothpaste, the concept has evolved and shifted.
Now, a brand needs to be loyal to its values — and the values of its consumers — if it wants to succeed in an era of conscious consumerism.
From Buying Habits to Hiring Practices
Just as brands are shifting to follow consumer habits, companies will also have to shift to attract and keep the best talent employed. The older, corporate types are retiring and leaving the workforce, and millennials are stepping in as companies refresh and rebrand.
How will a company attract millennial and gen Z dollars if they can’t reflect millennial and gen Z values?
This is forcing companies to consider what younger people want when they’re hiring new employees who will shape the future of their brands. Millennials building their careers want purposeful jobs that make them feel good about the work they do. And they also want flex time so they can go to a doctor’s appointment and remote work options — which are now especially relevant in the COVID pandemic, as we discovered almost immediately that most office work can be done from home without losing any productivity.
We also want better paid parental leave when we have kids, better vacation time, wages that are more in line with the cost of living, and even union protections. And we will give up money to take a job that provides better culture or balance.
A 2014 study from Bentley University reported that millennials would take a pay cut of $7600 a year to take a job with a better work-life balance, better company culture, or that they felt was more purposeful.
If you can’t lure in the talent with money when you have a bad company culture, you’re going to have to adapt your company culture.
And I, for one, welcome our new millennial and gen Z overlords.
I Quit My Job Over #BLM — And I’m Not the Only One
The timing of my career shift was prompted by my company’s disappointing response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the content manager for a major greenhouse operation, Green Circle Growers, with multiple national houseplant brands including Just Add Ice orchids and Wild Interiors, I oversaw our social media and blog content, as well as all marketing materials for the company. So when I saw that our main competitors and the retailers that sold our products were making statements and monetary contributions to the Black Lives Matter movement, I expected that we would act alongside them.
I sent my manager some screenshots of posts along with a recommendation that we make a post the following day in support, with a contribution to the NAACP. I thought nothing of it and expected a thumbs up to move forward.
Instead, my recommendation that we post across all our brands was shut down by company leadership.
And, somewhat out of character for my conflict-avoidant self, I pushed back and asked them to reconsider.
I pointed out that millennial and gen Z consumers would expect an act of support for this critical moment in social justice and would reward it with future purchases and word of mouth. I tried to convey that not only was this the right thing to do just by virtue of being the right thing to do, but that it also made business sense as more and more consumers shopped with their conscience.
The response I received was shocking and nonsensical. “It would jeopardize our business. If we support Black Lives Matter now, we’ll be on the hook to support Hispanic Lives Matter or whatever else comes next.” (This from a company with a majority Hispanic labor force is concerning on multiple levels).
It was also steeped in white saviorism. “The owners support an orphanage in Africa. It doesn’t get more Black than that.”
I was told that my judgment would be questioned by leadership if I kept pushing the issue. The message was clear: Drop it.
I liked my job. I was good at my job. I was a leader and mentor to my team. But I knew after this series of events that I would be leaving. There was no way that I could continue being the voice of a company that wouldn’t use its platform to stand up for what was right.
It turns out that I’m not the only one who has had similar experiences since the swell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer of 2020 and beyond.
In an article from Vice, three people tell their stories of conflicts between their conscience and their jobs.
Alex, 27, worked in digital marketing for a UK university and asked several times for the university to release a statement of solidarity. He was also reprimanded for posting on Instagram in support of BLM, an echo of my own experience. When the university finally did post, they were as vague as possible and didn’t back up their words with any meaningful action. Alex decided to resign after this experience. Alex is white and used his privilege to advocate for the Black students who expected more support from their university.
Tia (name changed), 19, also shared a story about a lack of response to the Black Lives Matter movement by her large, national employer. At the time of the Vice article, she was still working there, but noted that she was the only Black employee in her workplace, and the silence of her company — and her coworkers — was causing her to question how long she could stay there.
Kayla (name changed), 26, brought yet another story of an employer not doing anything at all to acknowledge the movement or its employees of color. Kayla is from a multi-racial family and left her job because of the silence and lack of support.
Mother Jones also featured a collection of stories about people who quit their jobs during the COVID pandemic, some of them in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Priya Krishna quit Bon Appétit Test Kitchen after the George Floyd protests and calls for transparency led to the Test Kitchen’s video contractors to start sharing their payment rates with each other for transparency’s sake. They found that the content creators of color were grossly underpaid while the white creators had much more lucrative contracts. After attempting to negotiate, several creators chose to quit rather than be treated as less than.
If you tried to do a good job and say, “I’m going to be a good cop, and I’m going to obey commands,” they would abandon you, charge you, leave you behind, and not even think twice. If you didn’t obey the rules, then they were gonna charge you for that. And if you tried to remain quiet and do your job, you are going to be a piece of modern-day redlining that way, too. There was no way that I could exist and feel good about it. And because I didn’t have to—and that’s the privilege part—I just decided not to.
There are countless other stories just like these, untold. We are experiencing a radical shift in the way people engage with brands and companies, both in purchasing and employment.
The Privilege of Living Your Values
I had the privilege to walk away from a job due to my conscience. Not many people can do that.
Our society is built to keep people about one paycheck away from poverty, so they must choose between keeping a steady income, access to healthcare, and feeding their family — or standing up for their beliefs and having the privilege to enforce a boundary like I was able to do, or like the other people like Alex and Tom, who used their privilege to take a stand.
If you have the means to do so, consider using a position of privilege (whiteness, in my case), to stand up for those who don’t have the ability. Point out inequality at work. Ask about the lowest paid workers. Speak up when your female coworker’s idea is ignored and then repeated by a man and accepted. Put your pronouns in your email signature.
If you’re job searching, you can check potential employers’ websites and social media to see what they were talking about in June 2020, and ask them about diversity and inclusion during the interview process.
And if you can’t do these things, it’s not a failing on your part. It is more than okay if your focus is to survive and take care of yourself and those who depend on you. Those of us with privilege should be using it to protect and uplift you.
Buy The Gaslighting of the Millennial Generation
If you enjoyed this article, you’d probably enjoy my book. It unpacks claims that millennials are destroying all sorts of things, from the workplace to education to the American Dream. Thanks for supporting!