Are Millennials the key to Impact Investing’s Success?

There has been a lot of talk recently about the so-called “Millenial” generation. This distinctive group of idealistic, well-traveled twenty- to thirty-five-year-olds has been successful in carving out a niche for itself in popular culture. It is a bunch that has been typecast as earnest, educated, and intent on pursuing social good. And while their ambition is admirable, the question remains about how this group will ultimately leave its mark on the greater worldwide movement to create impact through business.

Among the wide range of commentary describing Millennials in recent memory, one thought sticks out among the rest in trying to pinpoint some common factor within this diverse Facebook Generation: money. Or, more specifically, what Millennials do with it.

Take Institutional Investor, for example, which recently ran an article on the rapidly expanding world of impact investing:

“ ‘Today, that view is still pretty pervasive, that there’s capitalism and making money on one side, and philanthropy on the other. I think the younger generation is seeing that as a false dichotomy, or at least something that will increasingly become a false dichotomy.’…Millennials are more likely to embrace a philosophy that financial interests and social interests ought to directly overlap, thereby ostensibly benefitting both wallet and world.”

And here’s essayist William Deresiewicz, writing in the New York Times in November 2011 on “Generational Sell”:

“The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman….Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet. Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business…. Nonprofits are still hip, but students don’t dream about joining one, they dream about starting one. In any case, what’s really hip is social entrepreneurship – companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away.”

Well, maybe not all of it – but, nevertheless, the social enterprise is the new skinny jean. The skyrocketing growth of the “impact space” in recent years is evidence enough that Millennials are taking seriously the desire to solve the problems they see in the world around them.

The Millennial Generation is digitally savvy and well connected, but is that enough to push the conscious capitalism movement forward?

The will to help is certainly there, but not everyone sees the Millennials as having the necessary skill set or temperament to actually instigate meaningful change. As David Brooks of the New York Times opined earlier this year, “It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings.”

“The Millennials bring a lot of positive energy to the impact investing space, which is great,” said one social entrepreneur who is actively involved in the impact-investing space. But that isn’t enough. He continued,

“Millennials are certainly having a positive effect on the movement, but they have to replace some of that youthful energy and blind optimism with a more grounded sense of practicality and discernment. At times, they come across as downright self-involved, droning on and on about ‘how much good’ they’re doing on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They’re going to have to trade some of that energetic fluff for a critical eye in order to truly bring impact investing into the mainstream of society.”

In other words, they need to do something substantive. Liking and retweeting alone does not a global movement make. These actions by themselves are not game-changing.. It may get you a write up in Vanity Fair, if you’re lucky, but it doesn’t forward the larger concept of a socially conscious capitalism.

What is clear is that the Millennial generation has in spades the aspirations necessary to do good, innovate, and improve the world around them – all while gleefully throwing a wrench into the notion that profit and progress are diametrically opposed. So the question then becomes whether caring about the plight of those around you by RT’ing about it is really enough to accomplish what this group of eager aspirants wants to get done.

The gap between enthusiasm and action is of course a hard one to bridge. But remember – Millennials have money, and they want to feel good about what they do with it. In order to be taken seriously, however, the Millennials’ emotional energy needs to be harnessed, converted, and applied into real-world action that takes this generation beyond their newsfeeds and into the news cycle.

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