An Ode to the Disruptive Spirit of Millennials

By Josh Jacobson, CEO, Next Stage


Last week, I was glad to have the opportunity to speak at SHARE Charlotte’s Fifth Annual Nonprofit Summit, presenting a talk on building and leading social movements. It was a culminating topic following nearly two years of exploration of how generational change is disrupting so much about how our society functions.


It was a presentation that hangs its hat on the Millennial generation in a way that frankly surprised me as I was putting it together. We have been calling it ‘generational change’ in most of our content, but more than ever, I believe it is the Millennial driving how a prioritization of social change has become a paradigm shift impacting how institutions are managed.


My own Charlotte-based firm Next Stage has evolved over the last few years as a result, repositioning at the intersection of social good. We believe the differences between nonprofits and the private sector are narrowing, with more nonprofits adopting concepts of social enterprise and the private sector embracing a greater degree of values alignment to connect with customers, employees and shareholders. It is a convergence we believe has great potential for reshaping how social good gets done.


And I have to admit, we have Millennials to thank for it.


The last time I made Millennials the centerpiece of anything I was doing was nearly a decade ago, back when we were first getting a glimpse of their disruptive spirit. For many employers, they signaled a challenge – a generation of nonconformists who refused to trade on their values to earn a buck. Like the Baby Boomers they were aggravating, many thought they would age into ‘greater maturity,’ the way the revolutionary generation of the 1960s became the suburban families of the 1980s.


But something funny happened. They didn’t change. If anything, they grew in their worldview and deepened their resolve. And now, they are increasingly in charge as decision-makers.


It is one of several myths I disrupted as a part of my talk for nonprofit leaders last week:


- Millennials are young people. As I looked for stock photos for my presentation, it was funny to me how every search showed youthful images – a man-child with a mohawk on a skateboard. I guess it depends on your definition of young, but the oldest Millennials are now in their 40s. The stereotype of ‘young person’ no longer applies. It is time for nonprofits to really dial-in on how to build connection with what was once considered a youth movement.

- Millennials are entitled. The source of so much of the disruptive brand of this generation was their unwillingness to accept standard operating procedure with which they disagreed. Those in power saw that (and continue to see that) as a character flaw, when in truth it means this is a generation that believes it can change systems and policies they believe are unjust. A passion for social justice makes this a generation nonprofits should be excited to activate in service to their missions.

- Millennials are fickle. Nonprofits have wrestled with how to maintain engagement with this generation, seeing them jump from organization to organization, not building the brand loyalty of previous generation. As we covered in our Profit & Purpose report, Millennials are far more driven by mission and cause over alignment with the nonprofit itself. They also see everything they do as expressions of their philanthropic identities. So yes, liking something on social media may not change the world, as the adage goes, but it is a way Millennials express themselves beyond the financial contributions they might make.

- Millennials don’t have much money to give. Any sidelining of generational change as a trendline has typically come with it the argument that these supposed young people don’t have the financial wealth as older generations. And that is true, Baby Boomers have almost 8 times as much wealth as Millennials. But what is changing is how companies are looking to these civically-minded emerging leaders to help shape their social responsibility activities. Increasingly it is Millennials, through their employee resource groups and bottom-up employee engagement activities, signaling the future direction of America.


And that was really the ‘canary in the coalmine’ message of my talk last week. While so much of society is divided politically, economically and otherwise, our corporations are quietly remaking themselves through the lens of ESG (Environment Social Governance) to not only comply to current and future government regulation, but to compete for the human capital of tomorrow. And they are doing that by embracing social impact as an expression of workplace culture.


This is happening because Millennials will represent 75% of the global workforce by 2025. They are aging into leadership roles inside their companies and are increasingly being called upon to chart a course against the backdrop of a global pandemic and an increased focus on racial and social justice. It is a generation on the precipice of leading the institutions they were disrupting just a few years ago.


In short, it’s time we all got over whatever Millennial biases we might still be clinging to and embrace the most socially conscious generation ever.


And don’t even get me started on the truly disruptive Gen-Z little brothers and sisters of Millennials coming up behind them – a generation one researcher told me ‘is like 10x on the disruption of the Millennials.’ But that will need to be a blog for another day.


Thanks so much to the Armstrong McGuire team for inviting this guest blog. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the team and feel a real kinship between our firms. All of us at Next Stage look forward to more collaboration with this dynamic team in the weeks and months ahead!



Josh Jacobson, Chief Executive Officer

Next Stage | Strategy and Implementation for Social Good

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