Change often happens quietly, without us even realizing it. We go about our business, doing what we always do, and then suddenly realize that things around us have changed. Seemingly out of the blue, big beards are everywhere, old-school vinyl records are playing at our favorite brunch spot and all of our friends are celebrating National Kale Day. Even our sporty cousin—the one who works in private equity in Boston—has been spotted wearing TOMS shoes to a business meeting!
Yes, some might argue that these are just passing trends, but they are also a sign of a more profound change afoot. In the wake of the global frenzy ignited by the Internet, rapid technological innovation, an ever-greater focus on efficiency and cutthroat globalization, people are now looking to reintroduce substance, meaning and purpose into their lives. In a world where everything seems so instant, digitized and fleeting, people are yearning for things, ideas and causes they can care about and cherish.
This is especially true of millennials. According to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, 84 percent of millennials consider a company’s involvement in social causes when making purchasing decisions; 63 percent prefer to work for employers who contribute to social causes aligned with their personal values; and most of them believe that money is not the greatest measure of success. According to the report, of the 10 least‐liked brands among millennials, four belong to the nation’s most powerful banks.
In line with these trends, we are about to witness a paradigm shift in the wealth management industry through greater adoption of impact investing. To be clear, a small subset of progressive, high-net-worth individuals and families have been at the forefront of the latest innovations in impact investing, often taking the time to work directly with the leading impact investing experts to devise innovative solutions that fit their personal priorities. However, most clients are just now starting to ask their wealth advisers about impact investing, and these clients are frequently millennials, looking to align their investments with their values.
So what’s a mainstream wealth adviser to do? The wealth management industry has been built on the premise that safeguarding and growing clients’ assets is the primary objective. From time to time, a discussion around charitable giving might come up, but the primary focus has always been on financial returns, above all else. Yet, the new generation of clients is intently focused on impact; doesn’t believe that money and wealth are the only measure of success; seems distrustful of large, established institutions like banks; and is generally uncomfortable with the conservative culture of finance. According to Brookings, 71 percent of millennials “would rather go to the dentist than listen to what banks are saying.”
This is the critical moment for the wealth management industry to embrace the changing landscape. After all, millennials and Generation X stand to inherit $41 trillion from baby boomers over the next 40 years, in a major intergenerational transfer of wealth. As their access to capital expands and their influence over family assets strengthens, millennials will demand that their investments become increasingly aligned with their values. Wealth advisers who can point them in the right direction will have a significant competitive advantage.
The wealth management industry has a unique opportunity to be at the forefront of an important shift in social and cultural values. While embracing new trends and innovative concepts is certainly not easy, we all stand to gain if wealth advisers can help direct greater pools of their clients’ capital into companies and investment vehicles that can deliver positive social and environmental impact alongside strong returns. By meeting the growing millennial demand for impact investing products and services, the wealth management industry can serve as a major change agent of our time.