Corporate Social Responsibility and the Rise of the Gen Z Worker

February 24, 2021・11 mins read
Corporate Social Responsibility and the Rise of the Gen Z Worker

Generation Z, the youngest named generation, is comprised of those born roughly between 1995 and 2010. Known as Gen Z for short, the group is roughly 66 million strong. Gen Z’s older members have now entered their early 20s and are already a bold force in the modern workforce and society at large. Their power will only increase as the younger members of the generation grow up, so what Gen Z looks for in companies and brands, from where they spend their money to where they want to work, matters. They hold the keys to $29 billion in purchase power and more than $333 billion in influence. Not only is Gen Z a generation of digital natives, it’s also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet that, according to McKinsey, coalesces around 1 element: the search for truth. Having come of age during the Great Recession, Gen Z has a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to how businesses and brands interact with and influence society. As a result, they have clearer and higher expectations for the businesses they support and work for than perhaps any previous generation. While tidy mission statements might have sufficed in the past, this generation wants to actually see and participate in tangible impact. From hiring them to securing them as customers for your small business, the bottom line is this: when it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR), there simply is no other option. Gen Z is demanding it and businesses big and small will have to find a way to fall in line.

Gen Z cares about corporate social responsibility — a lot

The laser focus on corporate social responsibility comes ultimately from a distrust of business. They grew up during the Great Recession which brought unexpected instability for their parents and they took note. A recent survey by BBMG and GlobeScan found that the particularly disruptive contexts that Gen Z has grown up in (especially since they’re a generation likely to have immigrant parents) has left the generation “navigating profound social, political, and environmental transformations.” The report continues to outline how factors like the wealth of billionaires having risen 6 times faster than the wages of ordinary worker over the last decade; the collective $1.5 trillion Americans owe in student debt; and the global climate emergency seriously threatening the very planet humans rely on for life have led Gen Z to become the generation that stands up and speaks out to demand change. By a 5 to 1 margin, “Gen Z does not trust business to act in the best interests of society,” the BBMG report explains. Rather than get downtrodden, Gen Z as a whole has decided to do something about it. They are determined to create the future they want — and they’ve got the purchasing power to do it. A central way they’re achieving this is by demanding corporate social responsibility both from the businesses and brands they subscribe to and buy from, but the ones they work at as well.

Corporate social responsibility is key to securing Gen Z customers

As Digital Media Solutions has pointed out, Gen Z will buy from brands that they feel are socially responsible. What makes a brand socially responsible for Gen Z? A few things:

Speaking out against injustice

47% of Gen Z says that brands should speak out “because it’s the right thing to do.”

47% of Gen Z says that brands should speak out “because it’s the right thing to do.” The days of complicit silence are over when it comes to wooing Gen Z. They expect everyone, from politicians and other leaders to the brands they shop with, to not only take a stand, but to use their platforms to speak out against injustice. Genzers expect brands to get on board with public outcries for change, especially when it goes against a company’s purpose or values. Like we said before, a nice mission statement and set of core value alone won’t do — Gen Z expects to see action. Members of Gen Z cite examples of companies like Ben & Jerry’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Nike working with Colin Kaepernick, and Dick’s Sport Goods making it more difficult to buy firearms at their stores after the Parkland shooting and the store’s CEO lobbying Congress to pass gun safety measures.

Seeing, hearing, and recognizing

This generation has grown up sharing everything about their lives online in a way that no other generation has. Their voices are central to their identity and are used to getting recognized for the ways they use their voices in peer-to-peer relationships. As a result, Gen Z customers expect to interact with brands on social media and respond to brand collaborations with everyone from activists to students, like ASOS did with its recent COLLUSION collaborative designed to shape the future of fashion. The bottom line is this: Gen Z wants to be co-creators more than they want to be consumers.

Providing fairness and equity

“They want a world that welcomes all people no matter their race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” the BBMG survey found. Across industries, this upcoming younger generation expects diversity and inclusion to play leading roles at the brands they love. Like Planned Parenthood’s Spot On period tracker app for anyone with a period that doesn’t make assumptions about who its users are (notice it’s not just for women), companies big and small will have to include everyone if they want to win over Gen Z.

CSR is also central to securing Gen Z talent in your workforce

Just as Gen Z is influencing what sells, they’re also influencing the workplace and what it takes to higher young talent these days. The demands that Gen Z are placing on businesses to be socially responsible isn’t just an outward phenomenon. They expect that the businesses and brands they work for will turn their socially responsible ethos inward as well — especially when it comes to how they treat their workers.

They want good pay and benefits

Despite the myriad of ways that Gen Z is markedly different from the generations before them, they’re still humans and they still want the essentials: fair pay and solid benefits. Everything from salary to a signing bonus is what Gen Z will be keeping an eye out for. Oh yeah, and traditional benefits like 401(k)s and the like. Many of them saw what happened to their parents during the Great Recession and they’re already showing signs of being more careful with and concerned about their future than most people assume young people might be.

What benefits means to Gen Z is different, though

A whopping 77% of workers say that student loan assistance programs are a major consideration when considering a new offer.

Gen Z wants more than 401(k) matching and health insurance. Student loan debt forgiveness programs are a major draw for a generation that has seen their Millennial predecessors struggle with paying down the debt they racked up in college. In fact, a whopping 77% of workers say that student loan assistance programs are a major consideration when considering a new offer.

They want to be doing meaningful work

Even though they want all of the basic bases covered, they expect more than just a paycheck from their jobs. Perhaps more than any other generation, Gen Z wants to do work that matters. Their chief concern is designing a life that matters and that brings meaning to their individual purpose as well as gives them the freedom to live their life the way that they want to (more on this in a bit!). This is where external corporate social responsibility overlaps with internal practices — beefing up your corporate social responsibility policies and practices can be a central strategy for attracting younger workers who want to do good in the world.

Incorporating internal and external corporate social responsibility into your small business model

As you’ve seen, Gen Z expects more across the board—and that can be a lot to take in for a small business with equally small margins. The good thing is that, when incorporating social responsibility into your business model, there are both internal and external things you can do to meet the expectations of Gen Z that are simple (although not always easy): Honesty, transparency, and flexibility.

They grew up in the gig economy

They grew up in the gig economy, making them averse to traditional work structures as well as weary of what businesses are willing to do for them. The gig economy has been transformational. While a new era of tech-fueled jobs has emerged and changed what it means to work for a company (think Uber drivers and DoorDash delivery people), it has also highlighted the myriad of ways that companies can take advantage of the very people they need to stay in business (think recent Instacart strikes). This new approach to work has left an entire generation questioning the value of the 9-5 workplace. Floating holidays, flexible work arrangements, and work-from-home days are becoming basics that Gen Z expects to see in their workplaces, allowing them the flexibility they need to live their life first.

Floating holidays, flexible work arrangements, and work-from-home days are becoming basics that Gen Z expects to see in their workplaces, allowing them the flexibility they need to live their life first.

They expect opportunities for growth

If you remember from above, Gen Z is all about designing a life that matters to them. As they grow and evolve in their professional lives, they expect their jobs to offer them opportunities for professional development and growth. This can take the form of anything from lunch and learns sessions to covering seminar fees to ensuring that they have a solid mentor who can offer guidance for these youngsters as they enter and develop in the workforce.

Don’t make promises you can’t (or won’t) keep

As the BBMG report astutely points out, members of Gen Z will be “the first to call bullshit when they see it,” especially when it comes to brands touting the desire to do good while staying silent on current social justice issues or clashes—especially when the harm that stems from these issues impacts the customer base your business relies on to stay viable in these trying times. The saving grace, though, is that Gen Z is unlikely to confuse trust with not making mistakes. In like with the ethos of today’s corporate tech giants, failure isn’t something to be avoided, but Gen Z does expect it to be acknowledged and changed moving forward. Oof — this sounds like a lot right? Well, it is and it isn’t. While the fire that Gen Z brings to its corporate social responsibility demands is reaching new heights perhaps, the idea of corporate social responsibility is nothing new. There’s plenty of research out there on everything from volunteer time off (VTO) and other strategies that businesses have been using to meet the demands of corporate social responsibility for some time. There’s plenty of inspiration out there that you can learn from and adapt to your small business’s needs. At the end of the day, as long as you’re honest and sincere about your approach to corporate social responsibility (maybe even the reality that you can’t swing a robust program now, but that you plan to in the future) and you follow through with your commitments, you’ll be on the right path in Gen Z’s eyes.

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

This post may contain hyperlinks to websites operated by parties other than TriNet. Such hyperlinks are provided for reference only. TriNet does not control such web sites and is not responsible for their content. Inclusion of such hyperlinks on does not necessarily imply any endorsement of the material on such websites or association with their operators.

ESAC Accreditation
We comply with all ESAC standards and maintain ESAC accreditation since 1995.
Certified PEO
A TriNet subsidiary is classified as a Certified Professional Employer Organization by the IRS.