One Young World: millennials hold the key to building sustainable business

OYW Working Groups

Millennials have enormous value to contribute to the workplace – provided we give them the opportunity to do so. Three years from now, millennials will make up more than two-thirds of the global workforce. But involving them in important strategic decisions for their companies is not simply an argument based on weight of numbers.

Millennials are the most likely group to drive the businesses they work at towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This conclusion resonated strongly during the recent One Young World, the annual youth leadership summit. Every year, Chartered Accountants Worldwide invites some of the brightest young talents within our member organisations’ ranks. During the event, we hold an interactive workshop to discuss how to achieve the UN goals.

We asked participants at this breakout session about their chosen goal. For example, they might feel strongly about ensuring quality education, which is goal number four. We challenged them to think about how that relates to the other goals, such as gender equality (goal five), or climate action (goal 13).

This year’s summit took place in Bogotá, Colombia, and appropriately, our guest was Felipe Castro Pachón, technical director of monitoring and evaluation of public policies at the National Planning Department of Colombia. At the Chartered Accountants Worldwide breakout session, he spoke about how Colombia successfully united the nation around the global goals during the country’s path to peace.

Colombia’s experience illustrates that the goals are not an a la carte menu, but part of an interconnected whole. I believe business can learn from that example too. Connecting multiple goals into a single overriding objective creates a strong narrative that encourages the greatest number of people to get involved and to push for change.

Successfully achieving any goal is not the result of an order from the top of an organisation but a true grassroots movement. There was a palpable sense among the young people in the room that they are the ones in the driving seat of change. They told us they felt it was up to them to do something, not to wait for some authority figure to tell them. Our workshop exemplified how they could take the global goals into their workplace.

We already know millennials want to do fulfilling work for businesses with a social purpose that goes beyond simply making profits. Consequently, businesses that actively work towards the UN goals will have a more engaged employee base. More than that, pursuing the goals will do more good for those businesses by making them sustainable, and resilient to change. At a time of enormous upheaval across the world, that is a hugely valuable commodity.

The road ahead will have obstacles, however. A worrying statistic from Corporate Citizenship’s report Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals: Business action and Millennials’ views found that 80 per cent say the private sector has a very important role in achieving the SDGs, but fewer than 30 per cent think business will do anything other than put short-term profit maximisation ahead of sustainability.

More than 60 per cent of delegates attending One Young World work at some of the largest global brands, in traditional business or finance roles. They returned to the workplace with a sense of enthusiasm kindled at the summit, and a drive to bring about change. Now it’s up to them to challenge their superiors.

With the rapid rise of startup culture, and entrepreneurialism embraced as never before, millennials now have valid alternative career paths to being mere corporate drones. The call to action for businesses is to empower and engage millennials, and to benefit from their vigour and enthusiasm. Don’t make them work within rigid, hierarchical structures. Make them ‘intrapreneurs’, with the authority and influence to affect real change within the business.

Occasionally maligned, often misunderstood, millennials can contribute to making their businesses truly sustainable. If more of them feel empowered to act within their organisations, change can happen fast, and for the better. A contributor at a One Young World breakout session made this highly appropriate remark: “This isn’t about giving millennials a seat at the table, it’s about giving them the table”.

By Francesca Sharp, Sustainability Manager, ICAEW. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales is a member of Chartered Accountants Worldwide.