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The millennial attraction of employee ownership

21st Aug 2018
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We at the Institute have recently teamed up with the University of Birmingham and the West Midlands Combined Authority for a research project on responsible leadership.

Our project’s launch event back in June featured a panel of local sixth-formers. One in particular spoke very eloquently about her need for meaning in the work that she wants to take on when she enters the job market.

Her outlook chimes with an extensive body of research which shows that, above all, millennials seek a sense of purpose from their jobs. They want to make a difference.

At present, there’s a disconnect: if you’re looking for purpose, and you are making a difference – but it’s primarily someone else who’s achieving the rewards for your effort – then there’s something not quite right about that.

But it makes sense that, as today’s budding candidates grow older and rise through the ranks of their professions, there will be a movement to share the rewards more widely.

Indeed, we could say that the seeds of that movement are already germinating…

Staff at the heart of strategy

In recent months, there has been a flurry of announcements signalling various firms’ conversions to employee ownership (EO).

In May, Edinburgh firm i4 Product Design and another company from the same sector, Cambridge Design Partnership (CDP), both announced that they’d switched to EO.

CDP’s founding partners said: “We believe this is a great opportunity for [us] to accelerate our mission to become a world-leading innovator, with the company’s most important asset – its staff – at the centre of our strategy.”

The following month, organic veg box purveyor Riverford – which has an annual turnover of almost £57 million – announced that its staff would assume a 74% stake in the firm.

Days later, Blackpool payroll services group Kinetic and Peterborough management consultancy BCS Group also revealed that they have made the EO leap.

That’s quite a burst of EO activity. It feels like something is really happening here.

Quest for meaning

For an exemplar in this field, we need look no further than John Lewis. Its continued success as a brand is so often attributed to its partnership model, whereby everybody shares in the firm’s commercial achievements. That model has existed there since 1929.

Firms in the John Lewis mould have traditionally been in a minority. But now a new generation of employees is entering the workforce on a quest for meaning, they’re in a position not only to influence established corporations – but to set up their own, shaped and informed by their worldviews.

If we see the emergence of young companies started by people with a drive to have purpose woven into their work, then sharing rewards will be a more natural outcome of that cultural approach than traditional forms of remuneration.

At the same time, we must bear in mind that the eldest millennials are now getting well into their 30s – so they’re a much more established part of the workforce. It’s also likely that they’d be less inclined to job-hop, as many of them will now have mortgages and children.

As such, they will be looking to bring change from within at the companies where they have developed their careers. So that’s another demographic area in which the EO message could take root.

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