Whole Foods’ John Mackey: Young people “don’t seem to want to work”
The CEO shared his opinions on The Reason Interview podcast.
Why You Should Care
John Mackey is stepping down as CEO of Whole Foods on 1 September.
In a recent podcast episode of The Reason Interview with Nick Gillespie he shared his views on a range of topics.
Here's a deep dive into Mackey's perspectives on the future of work.
During an episode of The Reason Interview with Nick Gillespie, outgoing Whole Foods CEO John Mackey reflected on the impact COVID-19 had on the company and its employees.
In the podcast, which was recorded at FreedomFest in Las Vegas in the middle of July, Mackey stated: “It was difficult for us, we were an essential business”, which meant Whole Foods was able to stay open.
This, however, meant the early days of the pandemic, in particular, were incredibly scary for employees. “It was very hard on the morale of the company. Our team members were scared, they were being exposed” to a potentially deadly virus without any access to vaccines, noted Mackey.
In the episode, Mackey also shared his disappointment with the COVID-19 vaccines; “vaccinations didn’t really prevent COVID, like they were supposed to”. “When I get a Polio vaccine, I expect to never get Polio, not to [have to] get a booster every six months” as is the case with COVID-19.
In response to the challenges staff were facing, Whole Foods raised the pay of all its hourly employees, and committed to paying employees up to two weeks of pay if they were forced to isolate and quarantine.
Fast forward two and half years, Mackey notes that morale is very high. This is his impression from having been on a global tour of Whole Foods stores ahead of his retirement on 1 September.
While Mackey and podcast host Gillespie joke that they are just pleased to see the back of him after 44 years, the real reason for high morale is that life is “normalizing”.
People have missed out on connection with friends, family, and work colleagues for the last few years, and they are pleased to be out of the side.
Young people and the world of work
The conversation between Mackey and Gillespie then moved to a discussion about current and future workplace challenges.
Mackey shared that the generous federal unemployment benefits introduced during COVID-19 did impact Whole Foods’ ability to hire, and continues to do so as many workers are reluctant to come back to work.
Gillespie asked him if there were generational shifts in this respect. Both he and Mackey are Baby Boomers, and this feeds into their perspective on the world of work.
Mackey shared: “I remember I was constantly telling my father: ‘You don’t understand our generation’. I feel I’ve become my father….I don’t understand the younger generation.
“They don’t seem to want to work.” He continued: “I couldn’t wait to work…because that’s how I could get money.”
Another observation from Mackey regarding younger workers is that “they only want to work if work is really purposeful”.
The issue, in Mackey’s eyes, is “you can’t expect to start with meaningful work. You’re going to have to earn [that] over time. You had to pay a price to get where you are.”
Gillepsie asked that given that Whole Foods is in and of itself a purposeful organization – according to Mackie, “Whole Foods’ higher purpose is to nourish people and the planet” – shouldn’t it be benefiting from younger generations’ desire to do more meaningful work at organizations that share their values.
Mackie’s response was that “we may be having fewer problems than Starbucks, I don’t know for sure”. “We are really straining to get people hiring, particularly in the big cities, New York, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, DC”.
While research does show that Gen Z in particular want to do meaningful work, that alone isn’t enough to attract them to your organization. They are also interested in learning and development (L&D) opportunities.
Research by the National Society of High School Scholars found that 67% of 11,000 recent US high school graduates wanted their employer to help them learn skills that will help them advance in their careers. In addition, 29% wanted a clear pathway to promotion.
This was corroborated by data from Visier; while 82% of UK Gen Z workers wanted to work for an ethical employer, which WholeFoods would see itself as, 35% wanted L&D support at work.
So if, like WholeFoods, you’re a purpose-driven organization that is still struggling to hire, it could be time to rethink your L&D strategies, particularly for those earlier in their careers.
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Allie is an experienced business journalist and can be reached at email@example.com.