The CEO of Whole Foods calls meaningful work a privilege. Gen Z disagrees.

  • Whole Foods CEO John McKee recently said that young people “don’t seem to want to work” in part because they want meaningful work.
  • “You can’t expect to start with meaningful work. You will have to earn it,” he said.
  • But Gen Z is wasting no time; Finding a job that aligns with their values ​​and has a purpose is one of the biggest priorities when looking for a job.

Whole Foods CEO John McKee says he considers it a privilege, not a given, to be able to do important work in his career.

During a podcast appearance for Reason magazine, a libertarian monthly, Mackey made headlines this week when he said young people “don’t seem to want to work.”

“Young people don’t work fast because they want meaningful work,” McKee told Reason. “You can’t expect to start with meaningful work. You will have to earn it over time.”

Younger workers will not agree.

In a February LinkedIn survey, 80% of Gen Z job seekers said they are looking for positions that better align with their interests and values. By comparison, the figure was 59% for Millennials, 49% for Gen Xers, and 47% for Baby Boomers.

Meanwhile, an August report from communications firm Porter Novelli found that 64 percent of Gen Zers are more likely to say they would like to work for a company that advocates for or is involved in social justice issues.

Frustrated, young workers are fighting for more

But young workers don’t just choose their jobs because they want their work to have an impact. They also demand a decent salary.

On the Reason podcast, Mackey recalled his first job: “I couldn’t wait to get to work. I started working as soon as I could because that was how I could get money to spend on what I wanted,” he said.

Mackey, 68, opened his first SaferWay health food store in 1978. Although many economic, political, and social aspects of American life have changed since then, one of them has remained in place: the federal minimum wage.

In 1978, the federal minimum wage was $2.65, equivalent to $12.56 in today’s dollars. Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25; it has not risen since 2009.

In 2022, many young workers are disillusioned with the job market in part because their earnings are not as high as those of previous generations.

The lack of affordable housing has made the American dream of home ownership unattainable for many. Inflation, which is cooling but hit a 41-year high earlier this summer, has put a strain on workers’ wallets for essentials.

Not to mention income inequality, which further burdens young workers. In 2021, the average S&P 500 CEO earned a record salary that was 324 times that of the average employee at his company.

In the US, the level of worker protections lags behind that of other industrialized countries, and this disparity has been particularly frightening to workers during the last two years of the pandemic. In a May Deloitte survey of 14,000 Gen Zers, 40% said they plan to leave their jobs within the next two years.

whole foods john mackey

Whole Foods CEO John McKee.

Dustin Finkelstein/Getty Images for SXSW


For years Mackey has been an active advocate of what he calls conscious capitalism. He describes it as a mode of capitalism in which businesses are “sustained by higher purposes that serve, align, and integrate the interests of all major stakeholders.”

Meanwhile, the workers are rethinking their own. In particular, young workers are leading a movement across the retail industry to unionize for better wages and working conditions.

Whole Foods has come under scrutiny for years for its anti-union activities. In 2020, Insider reported that the grocer used an interactive heat map to monitor stores at risk of consolidation.

McKee previously opposed unionization efforts at Whole Foods. Speaking about Whole Foods workers to Yahoo in 2013, he said, “Why do they want to join a union? Whole Foods was one of the [Fortune’s] The 100 best companies to work for over the past 16 years. We are not so much against trade unions as outside them.”

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