Soapbox

Millennials don’t put their money where their values are

People walk by Uber’s offices in San Francisco. The sharing-economy company is under criticism for how it treats its drivers as contractors and not employees.
People walk by Uber’s offices in San Francisco. The sharing-economy company is under criticism for how it treats its drivers as contractors and not employees. Bay Area News Group

If you talk to young people today about issues such as economic inequality or climate change, you will usually hear them profess deep concern. A survey released earlier this year found that economic and social inequality topped millennials’ list of concerns, followed by climate change.

But the values embraced by those in their 20s and early 30s are not always in sync with their behavior, especially on inequality.

A case in point is the wild popularity of Uber, Airbnb and other pillars of the “sharing” economy. While millennials are big users, Uber has come under increasing criticism for using independent contractors to avoid providing benefits to drivers, and Airbnb has been assailed for exacerbating the shortage of affordable housing in cities where housing costs are already sky high.

This disconnect between values and behavior is more troubling given that it is precisely this generation that stands to suffer the most harm from the low standards of the sharing economy. Complicating this picture even further is the fact that millennials have consistently told pollsters that they care about whether the businesses they patronize are aligned with their values. In particular, younger consumers are drawn to companies that “give back” and are even willing to pay a little more for their products.

But what if these businesses’ charitable giving is undermined by employment practices that are far from socially responsible?

This appears to be a blind spot among millennials. Also not on their radar is the contradictory behavior of figures such as Elon Musk of Tesla fame. Musk, according to one recent survey, is more revered among millennials than Gandhi. Yet Musk’s ventures have been the targets of various lawsuits, including one last year alleging rampant labor violations at Space X, the private space launch provider.

Several factors may be driving the seeming contradiction between what millennials say and what they do. The first is an information gap; they may not be well-informed about the conduct of companies they support with their dollars. It is just in the last year that the media has started reporting extensively on the labor problems of Uber and the housing impacts of Airbnb.

Millennials may also be struggling with the harsh realities of an economy that is not producing nearly enough well-paying jobs, even for those with a college education. It’s certainly easier to live in accordance with your values when you have the means to do so.

But there also appears to be a consciousness problem. While younger consumers may be serious about linking their spending to social responsibility, many have yet to connect the dots between their consumption habits and the behavior of big businesses.

If they were to wield their enormous consumer power to support companies that provide good jobs, it would be a game changer for the American economy. But the jury is out as to whether they will close the gap between words and deeds.

Cherri Senders is founder and publisher of Labor 411, a Los Angeles-based consumer guide to companies that treat their workers fairly. She can be contacted at cherri@sendersgroup.com.

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