Shifting social mores underscore Millennial influence

WASHINGTON, D.C. - What do same-sex marriage, the Confederate flag and Donald Trump have in common? It sounds like a set-up to a joke, but the way these phenomena have played out in recent weeks demonstrates how social mores are shifting.

Corporations -- which generally don't like adopting political stances for fear of offending potential customers -- are coming out foursquare in favor of tolerance and inclusion. To a large extent, this represents an effort to please members of the Millennial generation, which is fast becoming the nation's most important source of consumers and employees.

“The idea that the American ‘consensus’ is now determined by alignment of corporate stakeholders + media + Millennials is very powerful,” Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, tweeted back in April, when those forces coalesced against religious freedom laws in states that were seen as potentially discriminatory against gays.

The alliance is seen most clearly on LGBT issues. Millennials overwhelmingly favor same-sex marriage. Their 73 percent level of support is substantially higher than that of older generations such as baby boomers and Generation X, according to the Pew Research Center.

What Millennials want matters. The Census Bureau last week announced that Millennials have become the largest living generation in America. According to Pew, they are now the largest age cohort in the workforce as well.

Millennials tend to like products that not only serve their consumer needs, but make them feel better about a cause. They like to engage with brands on social media and online reviews. "They're more likely to stop and think about where their money's going when they do spend it," says Kellie Nolan, a marketing consultant in Fort Myers, Fla. "Is this business talking to me? Do they get me?"

This past weekend, the gay pride parade in St. Louis was dominated by contingents from major companies such as FedEx, Boeing and Aetna. MasterCard encouraged people to tweet out photos taken in front of a sign saying, "Acceptance: Priceless," while Monsanto's booth advertised it as an "out and equal" company.

Not everybody has gotten on board the same-sex marriage bandwagon. Every Republican candidate for president came out against the recent Supreme Court decision. The Rev. Franklin Graham -- son of the renowned preacher Billy Graham -- is boycotting Wells Fargo for its favorable depiction of a same-sex couple in its advertising.

It's a risk many businesses are ready to take. In March, 379 companies signed an amicus brief calling on the Supreme Court to lift state bans on same-sex marriage, including Apple, Verizon and Dupont. "My gut feeling is that there is a generational change happening at the corporate level," Nolan says. "I suspect we will continue to see it related to many social issues."

That may include the Confederate flag. After all, Millennials are the most diverse generation in U.S. history -- 44 percent non-white, according to the Census Bureau.

There already has been endless debate about whether white Millennials are any less racist than their elders. Some surveys indicate they score no differently than older folks when asked questions, for instance, about whether African Americans are lazy or hard-working.

But surveys show that Millennials aspire toward a society that is more tolerant. A poll conducted last year for MTV by David Binder Research showed that 89 percent of them believe everyone should be treated the same, regardless of race.   

The praise they've sometimes received as "the most tolerant generation" may make Millennials complacent about structural racism, but most are offended by overt racism -- a category into which many people would put symbols of the old Confederacy.

That's a point of view to which large corporations are sensitive. Business leaders have helped convince mayors and governors it's time to take down relics of the Civil War. "Attn CEOs looking in South: There's no Confederate flag debate in #GA," tweeted a spokesman for Georgia GOP Gov. Nathan Deal last month.

Perhaps surprisingly, there's isn’t universal agreement that the Confederate flag is offensive. A new CNN/ORC poll found that far more Americans view it as a symbol of Southern pride, not racism. Still, the poll found a majority believe the flag should be removed from government property.

And then there's Donald Trump. NBC, Univision and Macy's all cut business ties this week with the real estate mogul after he said during his official announcement for president that Mexican immigrants are rapists and killers. “Macy’s is a company that stands for diversity and inclusion,” the company said in a statement. “We have no tolerance for discrimination in any form."

Polls indicate that Millennials are far more open to immigrants, as well as in-state tuition rates and a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, than the population as a whole.

There isn't universal agreement on any social issue. And Trump has seen a recent surge in polls. But, in the Millennial era, many corporations have decided that intolerance is bad for business.

[Also by Alan Greenblatt: Don't call Obama a lame duck just yet]

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