Skip to main content
Leadership development May 19, 2020

Taking youth to the top

Group of young diverse people working together
In our work as educators and researchers, we’ve noticed that two issues are more salient for young talent than for many leaders at top companies.

The first is global warming. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s ability to mobilize thousands globally to militate against climate change is perhaps the most vivid example. According to the 2019 Deloitte Millennial Survey, climate change, protecting the environment, and natural disasters top the lists of challenges facing society identified by Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (those born between 1996 and 2012). In fact, environmental and climate protection are primary issues of concern even among 12-year-olds. The 18th Shell Youth Study surveyed young people aged 12 to 25. This study revealed that protecting the environment is important for 71% of young people and is therefore even more important than one’s own high standard of living (63%). This trend and its associated changes are in remarkably sharp relief at the time of this writing: In 2002, 60% of young people named environmental awareness as an important value, and this is now the case for almost three out of four young people.

The second salient issue is that young people are critical of the lack of progress in business on gender diversity. A female student participating in the project noted: “Before applying for a job with a company, I am checking if it has women on its board of directors or in other leadership roles. If not, I am not going to apply.” This anecdotal evidence is broadly consistent with the results of international large-scale studies: 75% of younger people would consider leaving an employer for whom the issues of gender and diversity are not a priority. Further, young people firmly believe in gender equality. More than two thirds of Millennials (77%) felt women and men should be equal in both the public sphere of work and the private sphere of the family; this compares to 69% of Generation X (those born between 1964 and 1980), 68% of Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964), and 48% of pre-Baby Boomers (born before 1946). Younger generations also hold wider definitions of gender diversity and are more accepting of people who do not identify as either male or female. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, younger people are more likely to know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun.

Because of the uncertainty that companies face over how best to acquire and hold on to future talent, they must give these issues careful attention. Young people, including Millennials and Generation Z, will constitute 75 % of the global workforce by 2030.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

As we found in our recent innovative action research project with Merck, a leading science and technology company, companies can find new ways to attract young people by welcoming the views of young stakeholders. Deeper engagement and an understanding of young people’s perspectives are needed – not only on business but also on the environmental and social responsibilities of firms.

Through a research project conducted with Merck and students at the Center for Sustainable Business and Leadership at ESMT Berlin, we gathered insights on younger generations, their key characteristics, and their likely attitudes towards future employers. Putting these insights into practice, we then explored Merck’s approach to sustainability and commitments, anchoring our assessments on wide array of information sources such as corporate responsibility reports, press, social media, environmental, social and governance data as well as publicly available ratings and ratings related to such data. Building on this assessment, the students engaged in the project shared their creative recommendations with the company’s employees – for example, by participating in a large workshop at Merck headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany. As described by Herwig Buchholz, Merck’s Head of Group Corporate Responsibility: “We wanted to review how we are currently performing in terms of sustainability, going beyond stakeholder surveys and truly engaging young people in the strategic process and scenarios planning. We were very pleased with what we learnt and will integrate the results. These were impressive and truly enjoyable interactions with young bright minds.”

Walking the walk 

The findings of this research strike us as reasonably generalizable. They are consistent with the mounting evidence that young people are increasingly keen on making a positive impact on society and seek jobs whose purpose goes beyond profit-maximization alone. A positive impact on society or environment and ethical behavior are the two principal reasons why Millennials would start/strengthen or stop/weaken a relationship with a company. Based on a survey conducted by American Express in France, Germany, UK, and the US, three quarters of all Millennials believe that the values of their employer should match their personal values.

Other businesses should follow Merck’s example – understanding young people’s perspectives and gathering their creative ideas for driving business and doing good. This can be achieved through a strategy review that includes young people’s priorities. Another approach is to directly engage young stakeholders in structured research projects, for example in collaboration with business schools. Companies should also consider creating advisory functions for young stakeholders. The communication processes require revision, ensuring that clear commitments on issues of jugular importance to young people are in place, together with the strategies to communicate via channels used by young people.

Add new comment