Young people: why they need to take the lead

27 May 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 27 May 2022

Pic: Pixabay

 Young people, defined as those under 30, comprise 50% of the world’s population. This will rise to 75% by 2030.

And yet a 2021 survey of 1,000 organisations of every sector shows that the average age of the leadership team is 56 and of the CEO is 59. Even in India, the world’s youngest country with an average age of 27, the average CEO’s age is 56.

As for access to boardrooms, the tiny number who do make it have to shout to be heard.

Clearly experience is an important asset to leaders and you would expect CEOs to be older than raw recruits.

However the exclusion of youth from power and influence is clearly wrong. And organisation are worse-off as a result of it.  Yet it is not generally seen as a scandal. The older generation that occupy positions of power have seen to that. Younger people are routinely demonised as being lazy “snowflakes” who lack the maturity to take responsibility.

All a bit rich from a generation whose devotion to materialism has all but destroyed the planet and whose leaders have put their own greed before the interests of humanity.

It has not always been that way. On 19 December 1783 the person often cited as Britain’s greatest Prime Minister was appointed to office. William Pitt was 24. In 1837 Victoria became queen at 18.

There are many reasons why the problem of excluding youth from positions of power needs to be addressed.

One simply cannot be ignored – we’re currently living through a period where vast numbers of “baby boomers” are coming up for retirement ( around 10,000 a day in the US alone) opening up a huge leadership development gap.

So nurturing and fast-tracking talent is necessary for that reason alone.

The imperative and the urgency of the task is reflected by Davos having adopted the promotion of young people as a key global initiative.

But there’s more than filling a leadership gap at stake.

There’s all the skills that they have that older people lack. Today’s typical boss went both through school and a large chunk of their careers in the pre-digital age. There’s was a world of paper filing systems, carbon paper copies, Xerox machines, electronic and even manual typewriters, stamps, envelopes and letters signed by hand where office work began at nine and the day was done at five.

They have had to learn and to adapt, and they have done so, but they will never be as quick and as sharp as digital natives, born into a fast-moving world of change.

In this arena young people are already better equipped than present leaders.

Young people are also much more likely to live long enough to reap the rewards for action on climate change, or else to suffer the consequences of continued neglect.

So for their generation reversing rising temperatures is not one of those issues that can be parked or buried under a pile of platitudes. Securing the future will not wait until tomorrow, it is a burning imperative and young people are getting both impatient and resentful at their elders’ cynicism and complacency.

In the world of work there is a growing realisation that organisations’ strategies need to be aligned with what young people want and believe in. Yet in practice that’s not happening Research across all sectors shows that 60% of young people feel disconnected from their organisation’s mission. Put more bluntly that means that 60% don’t believe in what they are working for, which is often cited as a reason to leave their jobs.

So it is very much in an organisation’s interests to include young employees in defining vision and strategy. It is how you build loyalty.

Understanding young peoples’ values is vital, so too is their perceptions and expectation in what has become a very different world to the one previous generations were born in to.

But young people need preparation and training to take on more responsibility, and to build their confidence. One of the most effective ways of doing that is through mentoring, where a senior member of the team takes responsibility for developing younger colleagues.

This does not have to be a one-way process – mentors will often have much to learn and improve on themselves: making more effective use of digital technology, for example.

There are important cultural changes required as well.

Fostering a healthier attitude to making mistakes, even to failure is vital if we are to help young people improve faster and encourage the sort of innovation we will increasingly need to survive.

So too will be encouraging work culture that is focused on completing tasks rather than clocking in hours.

And where employers have had the trust and faith to invest in the young the results can be truly spectacular, especially where projects align closely with personal values.

One example, cited by Davos is especially impressive.

At the age of 26,US  cartographer and environmentalist Molly Burhans has documented the first global data-based landholding maps of the Catholic Church. She founded GoodLands to enable the Catholic Church to use its extensive landholdings for good.

Its system uses remote sensing to identify clients – like the Church - who own large tracts of land to identify parcels that have the greatest positive impact on ecosystems health.

The impact is estimated to be in the billions, both in terms of money saved and lives transformed.

Times are changing, and to lead us through that it is time for a new generation to take the lead.

Those of us who currently occupy those roles, whether we tried and failed, or did not try at all need to do our best to prepare the ground for them, to help them thrive and flourish to support them so they can learn not just from our successes, but from all the mistakes.


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