World Reimagined

How Millennials and Gen Z Are Driving Growth Behind ESG

Green energy - unsplash (for editorial use)
Credit: Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

Generation Z, people born between 1995-2010 and more commonly referred to as Gen Z, are the first generation to be digital natives as a world without the internet, mobility and apps, and social networks is not something they have ever experienced. In the U.S., Gen Z accounts for roughly 21% of the population while on a global basis they account for 26% of the population, equating to some 2 billion people. The size of this cohort makes it one to watch. Case in point, a recent survey by asset management firm Amundi and the Business Times found that 82% of Gen Z and close to two-thirds of young millennial investors have exposure to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) investments.

Combined, Gen Z and Millennials account for 43% and 49% of the U.S. and global population, respectively. Not only are millennials the largest workforce in U.S. history but together with Gen Z, they are poised to be on the receiving end of a wealth transfer as big as tens of trillions of dollars. This means their attitudes, values beliefs and risk tolerance are likely to shape their investment strategies.

So, what does the data tell us about those values and strategies? Let’s look:

Millennials already played a significant role in ESG investing having contributed $51.1 billion to sustainable funds in 2020 compared with less than $5 billion in 2015. In 2021, investors poured $69.2 billion into ESG funds, unsurprisingly setting a new record, according to Morningstar.  This trend is only set to continue, particularly as more wealth transfers to them. And with 40% of Gen Z saying their investments decisions are driven by “companies with a purpose” as their expected income rises, by some accounts as much as 140% in the next five years, the outlook for sustainable investing looks rather bright. By 2025, it is expected that around 33% of all global assets under management would have ESG mandates. The longer-term view offered by the International Institute for Sustainable Development sees the market for ESG-mandated investments reaching $160 trillion by 2036, up from $30 trillion in 2018.

Typically, when we see forecasts like that, we see a flood of company interest looking to tap that growth curve, and this was no exception. By mid-2022, there were more than 550 ESG mutual and exchange-traded funds available to U.S. investors, up from just over 200 in 2017, with assets near $300 billion. To be clear, not all of these are new funds, and nearly 100 mutual funds and ETFs have been revamped with an ESG tilt. The combination of investor demand and growing access led to 34% of financial advisors using ESG funds with clients in 2021, according to the Financial Planning Association.

The pivot toward sustainable investing, however, has also led to greenwashing, which is when “a company purports to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but actually isn’t making any notable sustainability efforts.” Simply put, much of what passes as ESG is more sizzle than steak or more marketing mush than substantive sustainability. This has led to skepticism on the part of consumers and investors when it comes to companies as well as investment products that claim to have sustainable practices. It’s attracted interest from securities regulators as well, which are looking to instill new rules and guidelines as to what constitutes an ESG investment product. One SEC proposal “would require any fund that calls itself 'socially responsible,' 'sustainable,' or 'green' to invest 80 percent of its assets in ways that are consistent with that strategy.”

Given the values and beliefs of Gen Z and millennials, odds are they will heed the advice the SEC put forth in an Investor Bulletin on ESG funds: “If you are considering investing in an ESG Fund, you should know that all ESG Funds are not the same. It is always important to understand what you are investing in, and to be sure a fund, or any other investment, will help you achieve your investment goals.”

As that happens and should the SEC codify a set of rules and guidelines, investors of all ages and sizes are likely to see would-be ESG contenders and pretenders fall to the wayside leaving more sustainable focused funds in their wake.

Famed investor Peter Lynch summed it up rather nicely when he advised Investors to "know what you own and know why you own it." What is interesting to us about Gen Z Is that for now at least, as a group, they seem more interested in the "why" than the "what." Given the size of this cohort, it may be the catalyst pushing companies and Investment product issuers to take serious steps to Implementing ESG policies. As with many things, only time will tell.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Chris Versace

Christopher (Chris) Versace is the Chief Investment Officer and thematic strategist at Tematica Research. The proprietary thematic investing framework that he’s developed over the last decade leverages changing economic, demographic, psychographic and technology landscapes to identify pronounced, multi-year structural changes. This framework sits at the heart of Tematica’s investment themes and indices and builds on his more than 25 years analyzing industries, companies and their business models as well as financial statements. Versace is the co-author of “Cocktail Investing: Distilling Everyday Noise into Clear Investing Signals” and hosts the Thematic Signals podcast. He is also an Assistant Professor at NJCU School of Business, where he developed the NJCU New Jersey 50 Index.

Read Chris' Bio

Mark Abssy

Mark Abssy is Head of Indexing at Tematica Research focused on index and Exchange Traded Product development. He has product development and management experience with Indexes, ETFs, ETNs, Mutual Funds and listed derivatives. In his 25 year career he has held product development and management positions at NYSE|ICE, ISE ETF Ventures, Morgan Stanley, Fidelity Investments and Loomis Sayles. He received a BSBA from Northeastern University with a focus in Finance and International Business.

Read Mark's Bio