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Whole Foods CEO Calls Meaningful Work a Privilege. Gen Z Disagrees.


  • Whole Foods CEO John Mackey recently said younger people “don’t seem like they want to work” partly because they want meaningful jobs.
  • “You can’t expect to start with meaningful work. You’re going to have to earn it,” he said. 
  • But Gen Z isn’t wasting any time; finding work that aligns with their values and has purpose is one of their biggest priorities when job searching.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey says he believes it’s a privilege, not a given right, to be able to do meaningful work in your career.

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

“Younger people aren’t quick to work because they want meaningful work,” Mackey told Reason. “You can’t expect to start with meaningful work. You’re going to have to earn it over time.”

Younger workers would beg to differ.

In a February LinkedIn survey, 80% of job-hunting Gen Z workers said they were looking for roles that better aligned with their interests and values. By comparison, this figure was 59% for millennials, 49% for Gen X, and 47% for Baby Boomers.

Meanwhile, a report last August from communications firm Porter Novelli found 64% of Gen Z is more likely to say they’d want to work for a company that speaks up for or addresses social justice issues.

Disillusioned, younger workers are fighting for more

But younger workers aren’t just being more selective with their jobs because they want their work to have an impact. They’re also demanding the pay they’re due.

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

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

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

In 2022, many younger workers are disillusioned with the job market partly because their earnings don’t go as far as those of generations past. 

A lack of affordable housing has put the American dream of home ownership out of reach for many. Inflation, which is cooling down but reached a 41-year high earlier this summer, has strained workers’ wallets on essential items.

Not to mention income inequality has made work even more dispiriting for young employees. In 2021, the average S&P 500 CEO made a record 324 times the salary of their company’s average worker. 

In the US, worker protections lag behind that of other industrialized nations, a disparity that weighed particularly heavy on workers’ minds throughout the last two years of the pandemic. In a May Deloitte survey of 14,000 Gen Zers, 40% said they planned to quit their jobs within the next two years.

whole foods john mackey

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey.

Dustin Finkelstein/Getty Images for SXSW


Over the years, Mackey has been a vocal proponent of what he calls conscious capitalism. He describes it as a way of capitalism in which businesses are “galvanized by higher purposes that serve, align, and integrate the interests of all their major stakeholders.”

Workers, meanwhile, are doing a reimagining of their own. Young workers in particular are leading a charge across the retail industry to unionize for better wages and working conditions. 

Whole Foods has faced scrutiny over the years for its anti-union practices. In 2020, Insider reported that the grocer used an interactive heat map to keep an eye on stores at risk of unionizing.

Mackey has spoken out against unionization efforts at Whole Foods before. Speaking about Whole Foods workers to Yahoo in 2013, he said, “Why would they want to join a union? Whole Foods has been one of [Fortune’s] 100 best companies to work for for the last 16 years. We’re not so much anti-union as beyond unions.”



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