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Is Business Good for Society? Less Than Half of Gen Z and Millennials Think

Companies’ multi-year sustainability plans and diversity targets don’t seem to be cutting it with millennials and Gen Z.

Deloitte’s 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, released Wednesday, found just 47 percent of millennials believe business has a positive impact on society, a steep drop from four years ago, when 76 percent held that same view. Fewer than half of Gen Zers similarly share this belief.

“In the 10 years Deloitte has been conducting the Millennial Survey, millennials and Gen Zs’ lives have changed, but their values have remained steadfast,” Michele Parmelee, Deloitte global deputy CEO and chief people and purpose officer, said in a statement. “They have sustained their idealism, their desire for a better world, and their belief that business can and should do more to help society.”

Though Deloitte found perceptions of the business world down historically, it said there are signs that these negative feelings “may be turning a corner.” Since 2019, the percentage of millennials who said they feel businesses focus on their own agendas rather than considering the wider society has inched down each year, from 77 percent to 70 percent this year. Still, these numbers are well above 2017 levels, when 59 percent said the same. Gen Z attitudes on the subject have been largely static, creeping down from 71 percent in 2019 to 69 percent last year and not changing at all this year.

At the same time, these younger generations do not appear to have much faith in businesses’ ability to create change. When asked to choose from eight groups the three they believed had the greatest potential to bring about “significant change” with respect to systemic racism in their own country, roughly half of millennials and Gen Zers chose individuals and citizens; the education system; and governments and politicians. Twenty-six percent of millennials and 23 percent of Gen Z said businesses and business leaders could bring about significant change. Even less, 18 percent of each age group, said businesses are making the greatest effort to bring about significant change.

“Over the years, this survey has consistently shown that millennials and Gen Zs are values-driven and action-oriented, and they are holding themselves, and business, accountable,” Parmelee added. “Even during a difficult year, they continue to push for positive societal change. Businesses that share their vision and support them in their efforts to create a better future will come out on top.”

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As the economy opens up and life moves closer to normal, many businesses have looked forward to improved sales. Millennials’ and Gen Zers’ views on their own financial situation indicate they may not be as willing to spend as liberally as companies would hope. Two-thirds of all respondents told Deloitte they “often worry or get stressed” about their financial situation. The same number said the pandemic led them to reassess and alter their financial goals. Only 36 percent of millennials and 40 percent of Gen Zers believe their personal financial situations will improve by 2022.

This pessimism regarding personal wealth aligns with broader concern over inequality. Sixty-nine percent of millennials and 66 percent of those in Gen Z said they think wealth and income are distributed unequally throughout society. Roughly 60 percent believe legislation to limit the gap in rewards between senior executives and average employees would significantly help. More than half said universal basic income could help remedy the issue.

Though climate change and the environment remain top concerns for younger generations, it appears the events of the past year have knocked them down a couple pegs. Among millennials, health care and disease prevention took the top slot, with 28 percent identifying these as one of their greatest concerns—the survey allowed respondents to pick three of 10 options. Twenty-seven percent of millennials chose unemployment and 26 percent said climate change and protecting the environment. Looking at Gen Z, the environment remains the top concern, followed by unemployment and then health care and disease prevention.

It seems there has been some growth in optimism regarding climate change since last year. In the survey it conducted before the pandemic last year, Deloitte found half of all respondents feared the environment had passed the point of no return and it was too late to repair the damage caused by climate change. This year, those numbers dropped to 44 percent for millennials and 43 percent for Gen Z.

Looking ahead, however, 60 percent said they fear business leaders will deprioritize climate change in the aftermath of the pandemic. At the same time 37 percent of millennials and 40 percent of Gen Zers said they believe more people will commit to take action on environmental and climate issues after the pandemic.

Deloitte’s 2021 report surveyed 14,655 millennials—defined as those born between January 1983 and December 1994—and 8.273 Gen Zers—defined as those born between January 1995 and December 2003. These respondents included individuals from 45 countries, including in North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific.