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Insights 14 Dec 2010

Why Generation Y Should Be Listened To

By Geoff Lye

Many years ago I concluded that the cohorts of highly qualified young people who had taken Masters degrees in pursuit of careers in sustainability had not only been poorly educated in how modern business is beginning to address the social and environmental challenges of the twenty first century but, worse, had often been fed completely out-dated myths based on assumptions of narrowly profit-driven and morally indifferent managers and management systems. This led to my volunteering to teach on the Oxford Environmental Change and Management Masters programme which I have now done for five years.

My Baby Boomer generation will be shown by history not only to have caused but also to have totally failed to slow – let alone reverse – the multiple ecosystem destructions which have failed the first principle of sustainable development: that economic progress should not compromise future generations’ ability to enjoy the same environmental and social (in the apolitical sense) security as past generations. At minimum, therefore, I am keen to help the next generation understand the scale of the challenges they are inheriting; that the corporate sector (as a lead player in this globalised, privatised world) is an essential part of the solution; and that the most progressive business leaders are already acting to use their economic power and innovative capacity to create fundamentally more sustainable business models (check out Unilever’s latest Sustainable Living Plan).

My teaching is one part of that obligation. But, increasingly, I am feeling that the time has come for businesses to think more deeply about its inter-generational responsibilities. In particular, the existing models of ‘stakeholder engagement’ which have been refined over the last 15 years are missing vital insights from their future employees, customers, investors and regulators. Furthermore, this generation is not only waking up to the catastrophes which society is blindly sleepwalking into but is also bringing a slew of new values, social networks and entrepreneurial solutions to creating new – and disrupting old – markets and business models.

Gen Y has grown up to see the world through completely new lenses:

  • They will have in their hands (literally, given mobile phone technologies) the power to profile the social and environmental performance of everything they buy (every business leader should be obliged to use Good Guide at least once a week). Baby Boomers – especially in business – are dangerously disconnected from the immediacy and power of the Gen Y world.
  • Global demographics are shifting faster than at any time in human history. Gen Y seems to be more conscious of overpopulation and its impact on our planet, adopting what used to be taboo language (even within the environmentalism movement) and sparking activism on this front. Jonathan Franzen’s recent novel, Freedom, in which he discusses the fundamental threat of rapidly changing demographics, has been hailed by many Gen Yers as a work of genius.
  • Timescales for radical shifts are compressing. Gen Y itself has now embraced increased urgency to act. Grown up in a world in which environmentalism is built-in rather than bolt-on. Gen Y reacts quickly and strongly to issues of social injustice and business misconduct – as shown by current UK affairs. Students have been protesting all month against a rise in tuition fees, in addition to attacks on retail giants Arcadia and Vodafone for tax avoidance. Protesters across the UK recently forced retail shops to close.
  • Gen Y does not see ownership as an essential measure of personal success. From car sharing to renting out high-value items they are not fully utilising (see http://us.zilok.com/) to connecting those with land to be gardened by those without (see http://sharedearth.com/).
  • Gen Y recognises the power of technology and social networks to raise awareness and spark activism – in other words their savvy use of social media has allowed them to usurp power away from more mainstream sources like the media. These days, Gen Y leaders go to Twitter for news, not the BBC – an alternative source that is, in effect, controlled by them.

Anyone doubting the potential of Gen Y to bring transformative shifts should take a look at Sandbox – a network of bright Gen Y individuals who separately and in collaboration are tirelessly creating entrepreneurial solutions. I was recently at a dinner of Sandbox and Oxford Gen Y students which left me feeling overwhelmed (by the torrent of creative energies) but exhilarated (by the hope that maybe Gen Y will make the breakthroughs we urgently need). Their world view is based on the premise that empowering young, entrepreneurial talent creates immense value for society at large.

Interestingly, Gen Y has at least one thing in common with the Baby Boomers – the passion to protest against out-dated and unfair establishment positions. Note how they are wielding student power to effect change – or rather to disrupt – government policy. This is clear in Latin America – Chavez’s dictatorship has faced a fierce, well-organized student opposition, fuelled by a diaspora running a Twitter campaign. The developed world is no exception: several UK Lib Dem and Conservative MPs voted against the tuition fees rise, reflecting the impacts of the recent nationwide protests against the highly unpopular measure.

Looking forward, companies face challenges – and equally opportunities – from the Gen Y shifts. To maintain competitive advantage, companies must attract the best graduates: Gen Y is less interested in status and high salaries – they witnessed their parents in this struggle – they now have different priorities. They care more about flexible working hours and a better work-life balance. Employers failing to meet their demands are at risk of competitive disadvantage. Gen Y cannot be bought with status and salary – prospective employers must demonstrate progressive values aligned with those of Gen Y – who must believe in a businesses’ mission. As noted above, Gen Y will hold businesses to account in the market for misconduct. And considering the immense power of the new and rapidly evolving tools immediately at their disposal (Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc), they can communicate this misconduct both swiftly and effectively. More generally, however, Gen Y is incredibly aware of the grotesque social and ecological debts left by previous generations, and they are not prepared to see business further widen the intergenerational injustice.

So how can businesses tap into the shifts in their markets which Gen Y will drive, create and, ultimately, demand? This is the topic of a new stream of research SustainAbility is pursuing though 2011. We will work with a range of Gen Y students, entrepreneurs and professionals to clarify and map the distinctive differences in values, expectations they have and will increasingly bring to markets and social and business models. We will explore how they will reward or punish brands and companies in terms to their sustainability commitments and performance. And we will dig into their own intergenerational perspectives (their children will be born into a severely compromised world of food, water, energy and climate insecurity). The global demographic shifts already under way (economic and geographic) will also inform our research.

In the new spirit of open sourcing and cross-cutting collaborations, we invite all generations to help frame this research. Comment of this blog. Join our Engaging Stakeholders program. Or contact us to share this journey into a new future. A Gen Y future.

Kyra Choucroun contributed significantly to this post.

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