The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Millennial Problem – and How to Solve It.
By Alex Epstein, Center for Industrial Progress
It is common knowledge in the U.S. fossil fuel industry, including the coal industry, that attracting and retaining millennial workers is a challenge and a priority. “The Great Crew Change” brought on by the looming mass retirement of baby boomers and the shortage of workers in their 30s to 50s means that millennials will be a key source of industry talent in the years ahead, and that they will have to take on more responsibility more quickly than workers in the past.
Therefore, companies that care about attracting, retaining, and motivating talented workers, especially millennials, must be able to answer the following with an unequivocal “yes”: Do your employees believe their industry is making a positive impact in the world?
The conviction that the company an employee works for is doing something good in the world, one study concludes, “is second only to pay and benefits in importance for employees, and ranks ahead of promotion opportunities, job responsibilities, and work culture.”
This is true for all employees but it is particularly true for millennials, who have grown up in a culture that emphasizes passion and purpose in work. To attract, retain, and motivate millennials, the fossil fuel industry must make sure they have a positive moral evaluation of their impact.
Unfortunately for the industry, the message its employees get—from the media, educators, politicians, and the culture at large—is that their work is immoral.
Let’s estimate that at an absolute minimum, just about every millennial in the modern world gets 200 hours of exposure, through their education and media consumption, to the moral case against fossil fuels—the idea that what the fossil fuel industry does is immoral because it is producing an unsustainable form of energy that is destroying the planet. Unsurprisingly, McKinsey found that more millennials say they would not work in the fossil fuel industry than any other industry, thanks to its negative image.
Even if millennials don’t adopt the belief that fossil fuels are an immoral addiction, they almost always can’t refute it, which undercuts conviction and greatly undermines their ability to be effective, persuasive ambassadors who champion your industry and your industry’s freedom—an increasing priority in an era where companies are doing business in states with substantial opposition to fossil fuels, such as Colorado and Pennsylvania.
Or that many employees report feeling uncomfortable discussing what they do—let alone proudly advocating for their industry’s freedom.
I am routinely told that it’s impossible to impact most millennials, that they are “too far gone” or “too emotional”. But in my experience, this is simply false. It is possible to overcome the moral case against fossil fuels and turn non-supporters into supporters. But it requires a very different method of framing energy conversations than is conventionally used—a method I call “pro-human, whole-picture reframing.”
Reframing the conversation about fossil fuels
I have been able to persuade many people about fossil fuels by using the essential method by which I was persuaded—“reframing how” I thought about the issue.
I come from a background in philosophy, the subject that deals with the core frameworks we use to think about important issues.
When I began studying energy, I realized that the frameworks being used by both opponents and supporters of the fossil fuel industry were wrong in two ways: they were, sometimes intentionally sometimes not, biased and anti-human.
Let’s begin with bias:
Whenever we have to make a decision in life, we need to look carefully at the whole picture—we need to look carefully at both the positives and negatives of the different alternatives. And yet opponents of fossil fuels routinely looked only at the alleged negatives of fossil fuels (such as CO2 emissions) but not positives (such as the unique transportation properties of petroleum). One particularly blatant example of bias is the widespread condemnation of coal mining’s impacts on workers coupled with silence on far more dangerous rare earth mining for the raw materials for wind turbines.
At the same time, proponents of fossil fuels often only looked at the positive picture. Instead of explaining why, for example, they thought the warming impact of CO2 emissions was mild and manageable, while the impact of restricting affordable fossil fuel energy would be ruinous, they would only tell positive stories while not addressing CO2 or other issues—reinforcing the idea that they must be really big problems.
The second, more subtle popular framing of our energy thinking is that it is largely anti-human.
It is important with any decision in life to be clear about the goal we are trying to achieve. I believe that the goal of all energy decisions should be to maximize human flourishing. But the goal guiding most energy conversations is to minimize human impact. In arguments about solar and wind, for example, people often focus not on whether wind and solar enhance human flourishing, but whether they reduce our impact on nature, with supporters arguing they are more “natural” and critics responding that they kill birds. But if solar and wind deprive people of energy by making it expensive and unreliable, does it matter whether they are “natural”? And if they are really necessary to save human beings from a climate catastrophe, shouldn’t we use them even if they kill birds? You cannot make good decisions if you’re not clear on your goal—and you can’t make consistently pro- human decisions unless your explicit goal is pro-human.
It turns out that if we are clear on the goal of maximizing human flourishing instead of minimizing human impact, and if we look at the whole picture of our energy choices instead of being biased, then there is an overwhelming moral case for fossil fuels.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people, when exposed to the pro-human, whole-picture framework will recognize its superiority and agree to discuss issues in those terms. That is why this framework works for me—and, even more importantly, why those who are exposed to it report a dramatic increase in their own persuasiveness.
Therefore, it is a great framework for re-educating employees about the impact of their industry—and about how to converse with others about that impact.
The energy education millennials need
A proper energy education needs to seriously and systematically address both the benefits and concerns about fossil fuels. Here is an overview of how to do this, taken directly from a curriculum I have developed and have made available at energyambassador.net.
On the benefits side, a proper energy education needs to explain our life-and-death need for cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy, and the fossil fuel industry’s unique ability to provide that energy on a scale of billions.
On the concerns side, it needs to address the three leading concerns about fossil fuels: catastrophic climate change, catastrophic pollution, and catastrophic depletion.
And it needs to cover all of that while focusing on the impact on human flourishing, giving the whole picture—not just positives, not just negatives, without sloppiness and without vagueness.
Although learning the whole picture of fossil fuels’ impact on human flourishing by itself is incredibly motivating and empowering, there is one more step that makes a huge difference, especially for millennials—learning how to apply their knowledge persuasively in one-on-one conversations.
Based on practicing one-on-one conversations with thousands of people—and teaching thousands of others to do the same—I have concluded that they key to constructive conversations is to frame the conversation in pro-human, whole-picture terms.
While I’m sure there are many ways to do this, here are the essentials of what I have found most effective in teaching constructive conversation, which I call the Constructive Conversation Formula.
- Express eagerness
- Focus on the decision question
Energy employees need—and deserve—a solid education in the moral case for fossil fuels and the art of constructive conversation.
Will “the great crew change” bring in a generation of uniquely conflicted people who are not capable of leading or fighting for an industry that is essential to humanity? Or will it bring in a generation of uniquely educated and morally confident leaders and advocates?
This is a choice that will affect hundreds of companies’ profitability—and their legacy.
Alex Epstein is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress – energyambassador.net