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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Martha Gill

Woke capitalism is not to be sneered at. Gen Z is a mighty force for change

Coca-Cola’s famous 1971 advert I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing
Coca-Cola’s famous 1971 advert I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing was created in response to shifting social attitudes. Photograph: YouTube

Young people are used to being told they expect too much when it comes to the world of work. Judge Judy, Whoopi Goldberg and Jodie Foster were among the latest of their elders to give them a ticking off – accusing indulgent parents of setting them up to fail. Curmudgeonly employers would not pander to their requests for better hours, they said, or align themselves with their pet social causes, as young people seemed to think.

But as generation Z starts to make up a chunkier portion of workers, another story is emerging. The “unreasonable” demands of this generation are in fact beginning to be met. Instead of giving young people a rude awakening, the corporate world is falling over backwards to accommodate them – you cannot, after all, fire a whole generation.

A report in the Financial Times charts the rise of gen Z “whisperers”: advisers, among them big consulting firms such as Edelman, that are helping companies adapt to their young employees and ensure, too, that they appeal to younger customers. Managers feel particularly pressured these days, the report found, to take a stand on social causes.

Activist young workers are not the only force pushing companies in a more socially liberal direction. There is investor pressure from above and customer concerns from without. Shareholders are aware that the market responds when companies take a stand: firms that pulled out of Russia as soon as it invaded Ukraine did better than those who only made the decision later, according to a study by the Yale School of Management.

Consumers, meanwhile, increasingly expect companies to speak out on issues of social justice, and are quick to condemn them for perceived failures. PwC’s customer loyalty survey in 2022 recorded that gen X and millennial customers were more likely to support brands that signal progressive beliefs. SP Global finds a positive correlation between business outcomes and support for ESG – strategies that marry environmental, social and governance issues. Investments in ESG are predicted to grow rapidly.

“Woke capitalism”, a term coined by the writer Ross Douthat, tends to be criticised from two directions. On the left, activists complain about hypocrisy – that companies do not always follow through on their so-called values. On the right, critics such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who wrote about the issue in the Telegraph last week, claim that diversity hiring and spending money on environmental causes is bad for business. Both squabbles, though, miss the larger story, which is that this change in corporate signalling tracks and demonstrates a huge social shift. Companies, if they want to sell things and attract employees, must align themselves with the values of their time. Ours are changing.

It might be easy to miss if you are focused only on Westminster’s turbulent politics and the past 14 years of Conservative government, but Britain, along with much of the western world, is becoming ever more liberal. It’s not just the young, although they are moving the fastest: the change is evident in every generation.

The gulf we have crossed in the last 40 years is astonishing. In 1981, just 12% of Britons thought homosexuality “justifiable”, according to a recent study at King’s College London. Now two-thirds of us think so. This change of heart mostly occurred very recently: in 2009, only a third thought being gay was acceptable. Around half of the public reckoned same-sex relationships were “always wrong” in 1983; when the question was asked again two years ago, it was 9%.

What once were pressing moral concerns – divorce, casual sex, whether women with young children should go out to work – have become facts of life for most people. In 1999, just one in 10 Brits thought casual sex could be justified; in 2022, 42% did. In the last 30 years, there has been a similar shift on abortion, once tolerated by only 14%, and now by nearly half. The British social attitudes survey shows racism has rapidly declined, as has prejudice against those with Aids, along with support for the death penalty. Forty years ago, 75% of people thought that ironing, in a heterosexual relationship, was the woman’s job. That has dropped to 16%.

This is what really underlies “woke capitalism”. Where we choose to work and what we buy reflects – perhaps more than other measures – our social preoccupations. In the 1880s, when it was founded, Unilever’s purpose was “to make cleanliness commonplace and lessen the load for women”. Now it is to “make sustainable living commonplace”.

Political signalling on the part of big firms is not new. In 1969, not long after the Detroit race riots and the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Coca-Cola showed an advert called “boys on a bench”, a group of black and white teens sitting together. It followed this with “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, its famous ad promoting harmony between races. In the 1960s, some companies took positions against the Vietnam war, and some against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s.

Rees-Mogg, fretting about shareholder value, should remember, too, that firms tend to act in their best interest. If a “woke” advert or company mission statement goes down badly, or turns out to reflect a tiny pressure group rather than the views of most people, it is often withdrawn.

Those objecting from the left should take heart too. Their side is winning. Where fights emerge, it is mostly over the pace of change, not the direction itself. When the activist group Fossil Free Books was pilloried over its campaign to make Baillie Gifford divest from fossil fuels, critics did not dispute that the planet needed saving. Instead, they pointed out that the target was wrong, and the strategy poor: Baillie Gifford was fairly woke already.

It is in squabbles such as these that our politics, as a country, become clear. Values are not only recorded at the ballot box.

• Martha Gill is an Observer columnist

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