Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

Main Content

Questions for David Burstein

Interview by Jennifer Anikst

The Millennial political-movement founder and author describes his generation’s approach to life and work.

You have spoken and written about the Millennial generation’s ‘pragmatic idealism’. How do you define this term?

is the belief that we should adopt moral principles, even if they have negative effects on our lives. The idealist is willing to suffer in order to do what she thinks is right. Pragmatism, on the other hand, is a rejection of idealism. If the Idealist’s principles get in the way, the Pragmatist does whatever is deemed as practical, with no concerns for morality.

For a very long time, we have looked at pragmatism and idealism as lying at opposite ends of a spectrum. We’ve gone through periods where we’ve been deeply idealistic as a country and as a society; and periods when we’ve been deeply pragmatic.

Today, it has never made more sense to blend the two and be a ‘pragmatic idealist’. That’s because the scale of the challenges we face is so huge — beyond anything that’s come before — while at the same time, our ability to take them on is greater than ever, thanks to all the unique opportunities provided by technology. To me, pragmatic idealism means that you want to change the world for the better, and you believe that the tools exist to figure out how to do that. The fact that my generation thinks this way bodes very well for the future.

Why do you call Millennials the ‘pro-reality’ generation?

People born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s are the first generation to have had no choice but to accept the many harsh realities of our world. For example, with climate change, we are the generation that will have to live with its impact more than previous generations, and we don’t get to choose whether or not we believe that it’s real. Millennials are being forced to accept — for better or for worse — the reality of the world we live in, and we are operating from that acceptance as a basis for understanding and seeking progress.

What are some of the key differences between Millennials and other generations in the workplace?

It’s important to note that this generation will make up half of the workforce by 2020: for the first time in history, a generation will represent both the largest consumer force and the largest employee force, simultaneously. Any conversation about Millennials in the workplace needs to be grounded in that understanding.

As a generation, we have a very different attitude around what it means to ‘have a job’. Over half of Millennials say they want to be entrepreneurs, and many others are seeking careers — not just jobs — much earlier than previous generations. They seem to be saying, ‘I want to have meaning and purpose in my life, and I want a job that serves me in an impactful way.’ That means jobs that allow them to contribute, not just to the betterment of an organization, but of the world, as well. These young people are looking around and asking themselves, ‘Where can I focus my efforts and make a positive change?’

Much of the world — not just Millennials — is hyper-connected through digital technology, and you believe that’s a good thing. How so?

The relatively new ability to tap resources anywhere in the world is extremely powerful. It allows us to share ideas and questions, and to make real improvements. Millennials are the most global generation in history, and that is very much tied to the fact that they are the most technology-driven generation. It’s not just about texting, e-mailing or tweeting: it’s about a new way of existing, where connections — and solutions — can be created globally and efficiently — sometimes within seconds.

You have said that the average Millennial will have 14 jobs. Why is that, and what can organizations do to retain young workers for as long as possible?

Millennials think about their careers in a more linear function than vertically. Once they have learned everything they can from a particular job, and grown in all the ways they can grow, they are ready to move on to the next challenge. It’s not that they can’t hold down a job or figure out what they want to do with their lives, but rather that they want to have lots of different experiences. They are very eager to learn new things, and they want to grow and continue to pursue that sense of meaning I touched on earlier.

The best thing leaders can do is focus on shaping their corporate culture. They really have to be proactive about digging into what their young employees are passionate about, and create a meaningful, valuable experience for them. The great news is, this is a prime opportunity to build better organizations and create progress for the future — because when we talk about Millennials, what we’re really talking about is the future. We’re talking about the preferences, goals and values that are going to be part of everything in our world for the next 20 to 30 years. By addressing these things and being thoughtful about them, you can get ahead of the curve.

How do Millennials interact differently with brands? And which brands have most successfully marketed to, or interacted with Millennials?

Millennials are increasingly demanding that the brands they buy demonstrate a commitment to social responsibility. They want companies to become more deeply engaged in socially-responsible practices, including going green, providing low-cost, direct impact in terms of charitable work and pursuing a new agenda of responsible business practices — from fair trade to international labour standards.

Since Millennials are the largest consumer force in decades, these concerns have been heard loud and clear by major corporations. Coca-Cola, for one, has done a terrific job of maintaining its brand while expanding its marketing platform. It created a ‘reciprocal communication system’, whereby customers can talk to the company directly, as well as to other Coca-Cola fans, creating a sense of community and engagement. When you achieve that, the result is tremendous brand loyalty — often, for a lifetime.

Companies that have built a strong reputation in philanthropy and social engagement also have a demonstrated ability to attract Millennial loyalty. With their commitment to environmental causes, Trader Joe’s and Burt’s Bees have proven particularly adept at this and the same is true of Gap, Starbucks, Apple, Converse and American Express — all of them partnered with Project (RED) — which aims to help alleviate the AIDS crisis in Africa.

Even without an explicit social agenda, young companies often gravitate towards a high degree of social responsibility. Twitter is one such company. Although many tweets are mundane or trivial, its ‘real-time’ capabilities have played an important role in generating global awareness for political movements like the Iranian revolution in 2009. It has been used by public figures from Lady Gaga to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to raise awareness and funding for issues from bullying to the crisis in Bahrain. Like most Millennial-era platforms, it is a forum for expression in which positive social action regularly occurs.

How do you respond to the criticism that Millennials are often ‘entitled’ and are not hard workers?

I simply don’t believe that is true! I think the claim arises out of what we say about every group of young people that comes along. Looking back, the exact same things were said about Generation X, and about young people in the 1960’s. This is how older generations tend to describe young people. Employers have to shoulder some of the responsibility for adjusting to this group of 80 million young people. In order for a company to succeed, all the elements we’ve talked about need to come together and create a symbiotic relationship.

What is the best way to train young leaders so they can affect change at a societal and global level?

As indicated, Millennials are hungry to address the world’s problems, and they realize they have the tools and potential to do so. As a result, the challenge is to ground them and centre them around their responsibility for the future. Every organization and educational institution should be thinking about the best way in which these young people can contribute their skills, resources and passions to make a real difference. It is the Millenial generation’s responsibility to get us to a better place in the world. As we settle into being the dominant generation for the next 30 years, I really see that as our mission.

David Burstein is the CEO and founder of Run for America, a citizen-powered movement to reimagine politics, reinvigorate government, and restore the promise of America for the 21st century. He is the author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World (Beacon Press, 2014), the first book about the Millennial Generation written by a Millennial.

This article originally appeared in 'The Leading Edge' Fall 2015.

Subscribe today to get the full Rotman Management experience – and never miss an issue!

© Rotman School of ManagementAASCB