Had occasion today to think about the concept of private, for-profit businesses – consumer-facing operations – as engines and drivers of social and cultural change. There is a prevailing school of thought that suggests to businesses “the consumer is getting younger, and the younger generation has different values than the one that came before it.”
This thinking goes on to suggest that “consumers of tomorrow care about corporate social responsibility, and those organizations that can capitalize and communicate its great societal good to its potential customer base will have the greater success down the line.”
That thinking, pushed further, might get into hyperbolic, philosophical territory, something to the tune of, “In fact, if an organization can make its brand align so closely to social good that customers are seen as receiving a supporting halo effect, a run-off good of their own by supporting a brand accepted as advancing society, that company would do more than capture market share and loyalty. They would, side by side with their customers, lead the country into a new, more equitable, more sustainable future.”
I’m not saying all of that is true or false, or that any one part of it is true or false. My default position is one of skepticism. I would like to believe that the next generation is different than the one before it, that the Boomers thought they would elevate past the Greatest Generation, that Gen X thought the same, that Millennials thought the same, that Gen Z thinks the same. Maybe they have, maybe they will. What I think – what I fear – is that we are not getting better, but simply different in our expression of age-old problems, problems that cannot be solved under the structures which orient our shared world.
The fear is that money and comfort are the great corruptors, that every generation starts out poor and idealistic and ready to throw a brick into anyone who doesn’t understand the struggle, doesn’t see the need to change these systems to the benefit of all. The fear is that those kids get older, and in the face of trying to dismantle systems get burned out and overwhelmed by the size of systems, by the few and far examples of meaningful progress, and they move to more passive, compromising expression of youthful revolt. Maybe some of those kids make a little money, maybe the struggle becomes an internal one instead of an external one. Maybe those kids start to look at the next kids and hope they can get the aborted job done, as long as nothing is taken from them.
And, look – I recognize myself in this a great deal, and I swear I’m not just writing this because I’m in early-onset midlife crisis / work in corporate messaging. I see the next generation of young, rich me-firsts coming up behind, and they don’t even know they’re on the path. They’re getting comfortable and amassing wealth and using the language to their revolution to position their largess as progress, their greed as revolt, their success as proof that the wars have been won. I wonder if those people are boycotting Amazon. I wonder if they worry about thinks like corporate social responsibility. I wonder if convenience and comfort aren’t the ultimate enemies of “the struggle,” that the threat of “taking something from me” is the ultimate line. Can’t you see I’m on your side? Even without skin in the game? Quietly? From the back?
I don’t know, man. I’d like to think people really do put their money where their mouths are, not where it’s most beneficial to them. I don’t have a lot of hope.
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