“Selling” public service to Millenial consumers: Are we in a new sort of competition with the private sector?

A fascinating paper by Winograd and Hais, and published by the Brookings Institution this morning, discusses some striking differences in what appeals to Millenials, compared to earlier birth cohorts, and it got me thinking. http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/05/millenials-upend-wall-street-corporate-america-winograd-hais

The authors’ focus is principally on the corporate side of things, and consumer behaviour, discussing what they believe is a shift in the sorts of factors that appeal to Millenials when it comes to marketing, their approach to money, and institutions. But they also spend a great deal of the paper examining employment priorities of young people. And the observed shift is one in which contributing to social causes of personal value to the individual, and that also having consequence/impact with respect to those causes, is a stronger attractant to young people entering the workforce, than has been the case for the 40-50 years previous.

One of the implications, at least as I see it, is that if the corporate world is going to go after Millenial applicants by appealing to their inclination towards social responsibility, then the more traditional (if somewhat false) distinction between private-sector = money and public-sector = causes will be erased. If Google is going to try and attract great hires by offering them a chance to “change the world”, then they’re going after many of the same people WE (the public sector) want.

So what will we do to bring Millenials our way?

Will recruitment literature and posters, mass media, social media, or other marketing blurb do the job? Maybe. But maybe the next step is to weave implicit cues to corroborate and validate the marketing messages into the experiences of applicants. Maybe things like situational judgment tests have to include content where the “right” answer to some questions IS actually doing something about a cause. Maybe the interview questions candidates encounter have to inquire about matters that implicitly convey that doing good and tending to important causes is a normative part of that job. That is, the centrality of values and causes has to be manifest not only in how the attention of applicants is attracted, but in how employees are selected.

It would also seem, extrapolating from the paper, that we may be not only looking at a different set of attractants, but different notions of career trajectory as well. If trust and mistrust is a bigger deal to Millenials, progress on social causes a bigger deal, and money less of a deal, then who will our leadership cadre be, and will they be stable enough to accomplish the work that needs doing? Keep in mind these are likely to be people whose earliest employment experiences were largely disposable, such that the notion of simply picking up and looking for something else is no stranger to them.

In any event, I don’t do the paper justice. I’m rarely one to jump on the bandwagon of broad monolithic between-cohort differences, but this is a thought-provoking read.

Give it a quick read, and let me know what you think. There is much to think about.

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