From the sharing economy to radical generosity: A shift from transacting to gifting

As the baby boomers and millennials line up in the workplace, Watershed director Simon Middleton examines how the new concept of 'radical generosity' could lead to a generation of entrepreneurs paying it forward.

It wasn’t that long ago consumers were wary of shopping online. The biggest concern was security. Handing payment details into the ether seemed counterintuitive and downright dangerous.

Human nature is predictable. We want innovation yet are simultaneously ‘neophobic’. We tend to adopt new concepts incrementally. Just as we have started to become familiar with the concept and benefit of the ‘sharing economy’, a new term, the ‘collaborative economy’ is becoming fashionable. But when the next iteration, ‘radical generosity’, is heard, there remains a strong degree of skepticism and this time it appears to be generational.

Our experience is that the so called ‘millennial generation’, those born just before 1990 get it this generosity thing, while the generation of the late-baby boomers, those born after 1955 and before 1970, struggle with the idea. It seems idealistic, naive and typical for ‘young minds’. This is something which had us wondering. Why do baby boomers appear more reticent at embracing the radical generosity concept? So we started asking members of both generations and may have found a pattern which goes some way to explain the differential between the generations.

The sharing economy, focuses on identifying excess capacity in goods and services and then using an agreed system to distribute the surplus which could include payment in kind or indeed money. The great enabler is information technology with its open systems of communication and community moderated gateways in the form of feedback ratings. Easy access and the management of ‘excess’ characterise this movement which remains transactional in nature – but maybe with a more trendy face. Once the exchange has taken place, the mutual interest is dissolved.

Radical generosity views the world differently. It values the creation of wealth but goes about it in a relational way. It’s focus is on defining the vision that generates energy, action, hope, a sense of identity and purpose in a person. The insight is to encourage engagement in the pursuit of this vision and it is from here that the wealth generation begins.

It is in this domain that business ideas are created, sustained and given an opportunity to grow. This approach is literally ‘priceless’, but it is full of value. It centres around gifting rather than transacting. The curious, but never guaranteed fact is that generosity begets a response that is far-reaching. At its heart is trust. It requires however a different mindset which reframes the place of ‘money’ in the overall system of wealth creation. This may be one reason why corporate veterans don’t intuitively get it.

Times have changed

According to one baby boomer we interviewed, it could have something to do with the fact that millennials generally speaking are not supporting families yet, as average parenting ages have got much older. He goes on to explain that on the back of a war, baby boomers would have had austerity and prudence hammered into them in a post-Victorian way that is no longer comprehended by the post-modern world.

Baby boomers too have been able to generate a huge amount of growth in real personal income – particularly in the West. Real personal disposable income has exploded, benefitting the children of the boomers – probably far more than they themselves ever enjoyed – thus creating a sense of plenty. This could be one clear reason why their offspring, the millennial generation, feel rather freer with resources than they do. Indeed the cynic would argue that generosity happens out of ‘plenty’. Take away the massive excess and people will revert to something lower than generosity.

The millennials we interviewed take a different stance. They feel ‘the old way’ is based on accumulating money rather than creating and sharing wealth – a subtle distinction. Certainly money is important (as Banksy was recently quoted saying ‘they were so poor all they had was money’). However wealth is larger and more complex than the reduction of everything to a financial number. This is where the shift in mindset occurs. Baby boomers still predominantly see wealth as financial, whereas the millennials certainly want financial freedom but they look for that which sustains beyond the accumulation of money. Current economic assumptions and models are no longer working.

One millennial said she had examined both the corporate and the charity sector and felt neither worked very effectively. She wanted to see more of a merging of the two – profitable business with charitable hearts, which is why radical generosity resonates with her.

Is this a generational thing where the millennials are, to type with being young, hopelessly idealistic while the crusty boomers have descended into cynicism born out of experience?

Certainly millennials may be more flexible by virtue of their being young and open minded. However it was a group of baby boomers who came up with the concept of radical generosity in the first place. They too had felt uncomfortable with the limping capitalistic economy and decided to do something about it. It started off as something which a group of corporate executives wanted to launch for the sake of their own children and their friends and which has rapidly grown over the three years since it was first talked about.

Radical generosity is by no means a one way street. An exchange of resources is based on trust. As and when the young entrepreneur’s business starts flourishing they are at liberty to pledge a financial gift back to support other start-ups thus replicating their experience. This is often not a financial hand up either. To one start-up finance may not be an obstacle to growth, however lack of commercial gravitas is. To another introductions into difficult markets to penetrate can make the difference between sinking or swimming. Radical generosity is found in the sharing of contacts, resources, expertise, even physical labour – all of which constitute the millennial understanding of wealth.

Generally speaking millennials have a strong sense of responsibility. They show a greater awareness of what changes need to occur to care for the environment along with a thirst to find sustainable solutions that don’t uplift some at the expense of others. They have the benefit too of the digital era which has finally freed us from having to work in one place. The office as we know it is emptying out. Whole teams are working remotely. As a consequence there is a greater freedom of choice and again a shift in mindset which is willing to try new ways, challenge the conventional, and, once again, ready to trust.

Ultimately all generations will learn to re-create and re-imagine the way we interact, communicate and work together. It feels as if we are in a season of something new. It feels more relational and less transactional as wealth is re-imagined. The baby boomers will need to keep an eye out on what millennials are already grasping if they are to thrive in this generation.

See also: Will millennials and Gen Z rule the workforce by 2020? – Here’s a look at what makes the youngest segment of the workforce, millennials and Gen Z, tick.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

Related Topics

Female founders