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New generation, same grit

September 10, 2019 - 8:25am
David Surdam
student protestors illustration

Today’s college students appear much less enamored with “big business as usual” than their immediate predecessors. Students today are faced with a job market requiring nimbleness, as large corporations no long offer lifetime employment that Americans of the past experienced.

Perhaps because their interests are no longer as aligned with large corporations, today’s students appear more critical of such business entities’ intimacy with politicians. Bernie Sanders always struck me as a bizarre pied piper for today’s youth; aside from the promise of “free stuff,” I think his message of repudiating Wall Street's power (a power that is likely an exaggeration to some degree) resonated more with young people than older people. Certainly candidates Clinton and Trump’s profound ties to big business raised hackles among younger people.

From a business ethics aspect, crony capitalism raises troubling issues. Should corporations influence powerful legislators to enact legislation that is strictly favorable to corporations’ interests, and the public be darned? If today’s youth push back against such an ethical quandary, these efforts are probably an advance over previous generations.

Today’s young people’s fascination with “socialism” may be a result of poor understanding of history, although Venezuela’s sad experiment with socialism is not yet even history. Young people may be mixing the desire for everyone to share America’s gigantic economic pie with the practical difficulties in implementing such egalitarianism. The fascination with socialism is not novel; the Baby Boomers flirted with socialism (among other “isms”) during the 1960s. Boomers also denigrated “working for the man” back in the 1960s; the “man” was typically some business executive.

Young people may not recognize a couple of the benefits of large corporations. First, business in America, including agribusiness, for all of its faults, has created a cornucopia of goods. Food consumes a small proportion of the average modern family’s budget as compared with American families of 1900. Of course, “average” masks a range of outcomes. Families with very low incomes or very many mouths to feed may find that they need to devote a much larger share of their income to food and other basics, whereas a family of two professionals devote an almost trivial proportion of their budget to food. To be sure, agribusiness has some drawbacks (almost every human endeavor does), but it has helped provide America with a huge economic pie to divide into slices.

Second, the forcible redistribution of resources can create unintended and adverse consequences. Americans are notorious for resisting authority—a proud legacy for which today’s youth can be grateful to previous generations. Persuading billionaires to voluntarily fund programs to help the poor would seem a more civil approach than trying to expropriate their wealth. On the other hand, many people believe that individuals have a right to food, shelter, health care and other items. People holding such beliefs may pay scant attention to the ethical implications of forced redistribution, and, in fact, may not be troubled by such.

If stated as a “right to keep what you earn,” then the producers who earned their wealth by providing goods and services that consumers desired should have the right to disburse the wealth in the manner they see fit. This would complement a “stewardship” approach to wealth. Business ethicists of the past often emphasized stewardship.

Wealthy creative people may believe they are more capable than the average person in distributing resources to help the poor. Stewardship and voluntary giving may inspire people to use their skills, experiences and resources in creative and novel ways to mitigate poverty. Some industrialists of the nineteenth century, for instance, hired experts to help them disburse funds. For young business students, exposure to alumni’s experiences may inculcate recognition, compassion and willingness to tackle poverty.

Reasonable people can disagree with the desirability and even the ethics of these different approaches. They may differ on the goals, on the approaches’ efficacy in alleviating poverty and on the unintended consequences of such different approaches.

These are basic issues facing all societies across time and place. The fact that there is no unanimity with respect to which approach is “best” (if there is, indeed, a “best” approach) ought to inspire humility in all of us. People have struggled for millennium to create an optimal society. So far, we have failed.

The young generation may be more attuned to the plight of the less fortunate, and perhaps they will create a legacy of mitigating poverty and distress to a greater degree than previous generations. They, at least, appear more inclined to do so.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.


Headshot of David Surdam

David Surdam

Professor of Economics
David W. Wilson Business Ethics Fellow

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Submitted by Ryan Falk on
In my opinion young people currently can find good ethical conduct in both big corporations and themselves. What I think is most important would be that we see everyone get whatever piece of the pie they need to be setup for success or happiness. And I feel that a lot of us see this shift in company culture and our economy occurring to being more socially responsible; whether it is through community involvement, core values, or employee benefits. As a generation we have been very outspoken as to what we think is acceptable from big business, government, and the expectations we have for them. If they are not filling those requirements then we will go somewhere else, destroy reputations, or even take on a culture that we deem acceptable head on individually.

Submitted by Aaron Syverson on
I think that young people today have a different view on work compared to the generations before. Young people today I believe are focused on more than just a paycheck compared to other generations who were mainly focused on getting a paycheck. Workplace happiness in my mind is what young people are looking for. The issue with this, in my opinion, is that many young people view corporations as money hungry and only focused on making money.

Submitted by Alex on
People always describe millennials as entitled, but I think they just know what they want and are willing to do what it takes to get it. I think everyone has a sense of entitlement when it comes to earning something, or at least they should. I want something, I know it's feasible for me to get it, so I'm going to do it. I think this same mentality can be applied to the reason for this blog post. If we as a generation see a discrepancy between the way our country runs in comparison to another or the widening gap between social classes, we are going to voice our opinions and demand change. I think it'll be really interesting to see how it all plays out with younger generations becoming more and more outspoken.

Submitted by Austin McConnell on
In my opinion, today's generation works as hard as the older generations did. While most see the newer generation at "entitled," I believe that we are as hard-working as the person who has been at a company for 10+ years. What we have now that other did not have 10-15 years ago is information at our fingertips. We are able to research different items, look up how to do certain tasks, and see today's biggest news stories that might affect the organization, and it may only take, at most, thirty minutes to do so. While I do believe the older generations were very hard-working, I believe today, with the type of information we have, we are able to go after what we want to do and not just find a job for a paycheck. In all, we are just as hard-working as the older generations, we just are able to get things done quickly and more efficiently.

Submitted by Nate McNamara on
Besides advocating for socialism, I believe our generation is on the right track with creating our own "legacy". Our generation has put huge emphasis on corporate responsibility, such as climate awareness and proper ethical business conduct. Our generation can really change the world in good ways and its up to us to lead the charge to promote good morals to guide the United States to the "optimal society".

Submitted by Molly Keyes on
I think that millennials don't want to spend their lifetime at one company because they know there is more out there to experience and they know that they have the capabilities to experience it. It goes along with the 'information era'. We know so much more now than we could've ever known 20 years ago thanks to technology, and we are a lot more capable of moving from place to place, both physically and financially. Millennials often get the bad wrap of being 'entitled' but I think we just know what we're capable of. We wan to take the risk to get where we want to be because we know it can be achieved. I also think we work just as hard as the last generations have, we just work in a different way due to technology. 50-60 years ago, there were no phones, Google did not exist, TVs were just becoming popular and the shows were very basic with very clean and almost childish humor. Things were simpler then. Everything about our world seems to be much more complex due to technology, which can be good and bad. However, just because our generation utilizes the technology on a daily basis does not mean that we are less hard working, we just use our efforts in a different manor. Our jobs may be much less physical than those 50 years ago, but they still require the same amount, if not more, of an effort in continuous learning and critical thinking skills.

Submitted by Allison Ries on
There are big differences between our generation and previous generations, as I'm sure there will be with future generations. With that being said I think that advocating for something you belief in is a good thing. We have more information now than could have ever imagined and with that I think today's generation is more willing to question what we're being told. Something that has increased in popularity is the talk about culture and how you can't get the ethical culture with a big corporation. I think that it can be more difficult, but as a generation we have proven that if a corporation does not mean are requirements we're not afraid to go some where else.

Submitted by Adam Schmidt on
I think over generations you see priorities change. With the baby boomers, they wanted stable jobs and being able to put food on the table. They didn't necessarily care what the corporation did with their money. But now you see the same thing with Millenials as well as they want social corporate responsibility and know that the corporation is doing more harm than good. They want to do better than what the previous generation did.

Submitted by Isaac Paul Lafleur on
I think the idea that the younger generations are cracking down on big corporations is interesting to say the least. While I would like to think I am apart of a generation who is finally putting a stop to the unethical big business as usual, I want to be unbiased and look at the picture as a whole. A handful of companies seem to be driven by a CSR mission, and a good amount of them at least affected by the general sense of CSR. Corporations have a long way to go before even getting close to covering their own externalities, however, which is just a way to break even in areas like carbon emissions. Then there is the topic of industries being harmful as a whole such as big oil. The real mission pharmaceutical companies and hospitals can even be put into question. I also know a good majority of peers who would not take the ethical or mission-oriented job over the better salaried job, but that is just my experience. It is possible I am looking through a cynical and critical lens, but I do wonder every time I see articles involving praise for my generation if it is something that is said so much it has become accepted or if there is better proof that changes are happening. And even if the people's call for betterment in business is real, a business who does one good thing for the environment or neighborhood and then uses it as a marketing ploy is not real change, more so just taking advantage of a trend.