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COVID-19: how can boards protect young people’s futures?

21 July: Boardrooms make some of the most influential decisions in the country – but do they reflect society and understand intergenerational challenges, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19? ICAEW’s Board Effectiveness Manager, Julia Root-Gutteridge, explores solutions.

UK corporate boards are making progress on gender and ethnic diversity, but the dial has not moved on age diversity. The average age of non-executive directors has actually risen 2.4 years over the past decade to 60.3, according to the Spencer Stuart 2017 UK Board report. Charities Aid Foundation found that the average age of charity trustees is 57.

There are, of course, excellent reasons to fill board positions with industry sages, with many years of experience honing their skills at the coalface. In a crisis, people with prior experience are an invaluable asset. However, prioritising experience above all else puts younger candidates out of the race and, as a result, diminishes the voice of younger generations on boards.

On balance, this crisis is hitting the young more severely than professionals further on in their career. Research by Deloitte in April 2020 found that the under-30s, those in part-time work or on low pay are the most likely to have been furloughed or made redundant. Conversely, those aged 35 to 59, on higher pay or in full-time work are more likely to be working from home and, therefore, still be in employment. 

Government and boards alike are taking big decisions that impact the young, including:

  • The closure of office space and an increase in home-working (the office is an effective social forum where junior staff learn from the behaviour of their seniors)
  • Key life milestones diminished or cancelled altogether (for example, leaving school with no A-levels because they’ve been cancelled)

Recently, I’ve sat in meetings where some very senior people say, “I only understand this because my daughter/son-in-law/neighbour’s child is experiencing it.” Anecdotal evidence on my part, yes – but this tells me that their understanding of these challenges is by chance, not by design. Boards need to find a way to make sure their decisions take into account the needs, aspirations and opinions of younger generations.

To bridge this gap, there are two things boards can do:

1) Create a “Young NED” position 

2) Ring-fence staff training and development programmes

1) Create a “Young NED” position

We’ve seen from recent protests and rising political engagement that young people want a more active role in directing the future of their communities. They want a real stake in society, and they want to work for businesses which are led by diverse leadership teams – it’s time to create these opportunities.

Creating a dedicated Non-Executive Director (NED) role to be filled by an under 30 on your board is good governance, as it would broaden the range of stakeholder voices your board is hearing. Younger people are key to understanding and addressing differing trends, so hearing from such a NED makes the board more agile, resilient and more likely to succeed. It would bring an outside perspective: whether it’s your core offering, your customer base, your treatment of stakeholders or role in the wider community – an empowered youth NED could give you a new way to look at your challenges.

This can’t be a tick-box exercise. This new NED would need a training and onboarding programme to enable them to integrate and feel confident and empowered to make meaningful contributions. Those contributions must carry weight and not just be branded as those of the “youth spokesperson”. 

In return, the youth NED would benefit from understanding how a board works. They would go behind the curtain of decision-making and see how organisations really operate. Many board members are so far into their careers they forget that many find the boardroom mystical and there are huge career benefits for them in creating this kind of opportunity.

2) Ring-fence staff training and development programmes

If your board isn’t ready to create a youth NED yet, there are simpler actions you can take.

Protect training budgets, including professional training such as the ACA

Speaking from a generation which graduated two years into the financial crisis in 2010, I watched graduate job opportunities and training budgets dry up before my eyes. The lost opportunity scarred the careers of young people who were beginning their careers in the crisis, and even now they are behind where they should be on earning potential and seniority. Don’t let that be the fate of young people in the wake of COVID-19.

To promote social mobility, and level up the country – the favoured themes of our current Prime Minister – we must safeguard training and development budgets as much as possible.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak used measures in his Summer Statement on 8 July to address impending rising and mass unemployment, and youth unemployment in particular. History shows that economic recessions tend to see companies adopt a “last in, first out” approach to job losses, which invariably mean younger people. Every recession tends to diminish young people’s career opportunities. The profession needs to do as much as possible to address this. 

As budgets tighten and restructures get underway, preserving development opportunities such as the ACA and CFAB is a critical way to safeguard the investment in your younger staff and protect the future pipeline of Chartered Accountants.

Reverse mentoring between staff and the Board

The widespread adoption of homeworking is limiting opportunities for young, ambitious workers to get exposure and socialise with senior colleagues, which is essential for observing the behaviours which you need to get to the top. 

Implementing programmes such as reverse mentoring are a cost-free way for junior and senior staff alive to learn and grow relationships. A number of large corporates have reported their success with these initiatives, including Microsoft and PwC, where it is a tried and tested tool to increase staff retention, support diversity and drive cultural change.


This is a critical moment for board members to use their influence to promote the prospects of young people in our society. Having a younger person as a NED would broaden the scope of opinion and perspective on your board, providing fresh challenges to ideas – which is the core of better decision-making and good governance. It would also grant younger workers a voice in the boardroom when future staffing options are being considered and decided.

Done well, initiatives such as this help to rebuild trust in business – fuelling the belief that business can be the engine for social mobility and progress in society.


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