The youngest in society have a different view of how to bring about change through protests. Business leaders should understand why – and take note of the implications
In the past two decades, social media has transformed our ability to complain, protest and demand change. These online channels may never replace more traditional forms of campaigning or protest but they provide a boost – sometimes a huge boost – to the scale, scope and speed of a message and the change it can bring.
Even brief reflection on the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter protests will show how much harder it would be – and how much longer it would take – without social media and the underlying technology to produce the changes that are echoing through our lives now, and will continue to do so for decades to come.
And while everyone is affected by the proliferation of social media, and the technology that enables it, it is the youngest generation – those that have never known a time without clicks, likes, shares, emojis and so on – in whom it appears to be causing some of the biggest changes.
Sociologists tend to agree that social media has made young adults more likely to be politically active and agitate for change in both online and ‘offline’ forums (at protests and demonstrations) if they are politically engaged – there is less consensus on whether it broadens political engagement overall.
Nevertheless, having grown up with social media, young adults are aware of causes and protests emerging anywhere in the world, and know immediately how to support them.
‘We’re in the midst of a new conscientious, altruistic generation’
One person who says today’s technology has pushed him to create social change, and helped him to do so is Vincent Egunlae ACA, currently in his fourth year at Grant Thornton.
Alongside his day job in the firm’s public sector team, Egunlae is one of the co-founders of The Open Public School (OPS), a charity that he and three friends set up in 2019.
It aims to give state school students some of the more intangible benefits of a private education. The charity partners state school-educated pupils with senior people in the industry in which they want to work. This helps them build a career path and become familiar interacting with people whose stature might otherwise seem overwhelming.
OPS has just finished selecting its second cohort of pupils and plans to push ahead next year with more corporate partnerships to take the scheme nationwide.
Egunlae thinks online activism and campaigning has led to more awareness among his generation and provided them with a better understanding of the challenges certain groups face. “We're in the midst of a new conscientious, altruistic generation, and people want to help,” he says. “People in general have had their minds turned … because of the stuff they are seeing online that highlights the disparities, and says ‘This isn't good enough, we need to do something about it.’
“And it's not just ‘We need to do something about it,’ it’s ‘What are you personally doing about it?’.”
He is also clear that social media has helped him achieve all he has with OPS. Although charities with causes similar to the OPS have existed for centuries, Egunlae says that what he and his co-founders have achieved at a young age, and while setting out on professional careers of their own, would have been much harder without social media or today’s technology.
“If someone tried to do this 20 years ago, I don't think they would have had the necessary connectivity to be able to reach out en masse and as quickly to students, pupils, and mentors. We also wouldn’t have been able to build up a team of 17 volunteers to take their own time to help us week in week out” as easily either, he says.
Gen Z more likely to take political action than their elders
Taking part in political debate, supporting a cause or even contributing money to it online is known as ‘clicktivism’.
Jenk Oz, Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Thred Media, a company specialising in content for a Generation Z audience (those born after 1997), says: “Research over the past 10 years suggests that clicktivism can be a powerful tool to spread little-known ideas and publicise non-mainstream causes that don’t get the attention they deserve.
“One tweet or post won’t change the world, of course, but thousands of them can spread beliefs that will.”
And this goes beyond spreading beliefs. Research suggests the youngest in society are more ready to support causes – in a variety of ways – than their elders.
The authors of a large-scale survey published by Pew in May this year say, “While many forms of political engagement – such as voting – tend to be higher among older adults, 32% of Gen Zers and 28% of Millennials have taken at least one of four actions (donating money, contacting an elected official, volunteering or attending a rally) to help address climate change in the last year, compared with smaller shares of Gen X (23%) and Baby Boomer and older adults (21%).”
Outside of the climate debate, 2019 research done by the British Heart Foundation of over 2000 UK adults found that “People aged between 16 and 24 – known as Generation Z – are more likely to have volunteered for charities than any other age group” The analysis showed that 46% of Generation Z had volunteered at some point, and 24% said they were currently involved with volunteering. In comparison, 33% of those over 55 in the survey had never volunteered and “ruled out ever volunteering in the future.”
Clearly social media and new technology also have many downsides. They facilitate the spread of hatred and mis- and dis-information, and allow governments to spy on people more easily than ever, for example.
But this doesn’t change the fact that those growing up in this environment have far more opportunities for bringing about change than any previous generation.
What this means for the future
Those running businesses today, and those who advise them, need to understand this shift. Either as consumers, employees or as activists, those coming of age today will let you know what they think about the decisions you make and, crucially, will feel confident in rallying others to their cause quickly if they disagree.
Deloitte’s 2021 survey of over 22,000 gen Z and millennial respondents concludes that “gen Zs aren’t passive. As consumers, they often put their wallets where their values are, stopping or initiating relationships based on how companies treat the environment, protect personal data, and position themselves on social and political issues.”
And this goes beyond just how companies act towards them and their peers. Almost 20% of those in the 2021 data say they have “actively boycotted or otherwise protested” at companies who are not deemed to pay their fair share of tax.
So it’s clear that companies must show how and why their values and strategic aims go beyond simply making a profit and satisfying customers. They must be clear in the values they do hold, especially in doing their part to tackle persistent inequality and the climate crisis.
As another Gen Z report based on a 2019 large-scale survey of over 15,000 respondents from consultants OC&C advises, “Social justice is increasingly important to Gen Z, either for their personal worldviews or for ‘being seen’ to support the ‘right’ causes. And while your values don’t have to be ‘ethical’ as such, showing a consistent mission that you’ve stuck to over time which is communicated at every possible touchpoint will be compelling for these youngest consumers.”
This is also true, of course, when it comes to recruiting and retaining gen Z employees. The Deloitte data shows that businesses are far less likely to attract the best candidates if they’re not doing all they can to promote diversity and inclusion, and prioritising the mental health of all employees. They also need to show employees how what they are doing in their job is making a difference to the world.
It is likely that as they ease into leadership positions in the coming decades, many Gen Z employees will be already used to campaigning for and bringing about the change they want to see, which could generate bolder policies and corporate strategies than we’ve seen for decades. Only time will tell on that score.
Right now, however, it’s clear that senior decision-makers need to understand the social and environmental implications of their decisions, and for chartered accountants to support them in doing so – as this content series aims to make clear.
When Chartered Accountants Save the World
Our major content series explores how chartered accountants are helping to tackle some of the most urgent social challenges within the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and considers how the profession could do even more in the future.
- How to make capitalism work for today’s world
- What it’s like being a climate activist in Uganda
- Adair Turner: The mistakes we’ve made on climate, and where to focus now
- Michael Izza on members’ core role in tackling the climate crisis
- Climate risk is an “inescapable” part of chartered accountants’ remit