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Where is the youth leading us?

Where is the youth leading us?

Natasja van der Laan

CEO Public Division

Kantar Netherlands


Greta Thunberg may be an exceptional girl – someone who by the age of eight had already wondered why everyone wasn’t more worried about global warming. Yet she symbolizes a great trend and a new era in which young people are becoming leaders with an enormous impact on older generations. After all, Greta is not the only teenager who has decided to stop eating meat and avoid air travel.

And even Greta’s influence started closer to home, with parents who more or less made the switch toward environmentalism alongside their daughter. How many of us can relate in our own families? We are increasingly being confronted by our adolescents about flying to France and eating animals. Many of us have heard from our kids that our next car, “will surely be an electric one, right Mom?”

The adolescent of today makes quite his own choices, not only about goods but also about life views and style. Moreover, they are steadfast in that respect, and do not hesitate to address the older generations seriously about the irresponsible behavior that’s passed from generation to generation.

Dutch youth are often seen as the healthiest in the world. Yet that perception is not entirely justified. Health is often confused with a population’s "degree of satisfaction," on which the Netherlands does score highly. In contrast, the HBSC (health behavior in school-aged children) measurements show that the Netherlands, compared to other European countries, only scores around average when it comes to issues such as exercise, nutrition, and alcohol consumption. It is even expected that in the near future, half of today’s young people will have a chronic disease.

But now we seem to be at a turning point. The legion of young people who strive for a more sustainable and healthier life is continually growing – and is starting to gain more and more influence. This is welcomed by various health organizations. They are increasingly joining forces with young activists to keep this target group away from cigarettes as well as fatty and sweet snacks – and, above all, to entice them to exercise a lot and opt for healthy products.

If it is up to cooperating health funds, Dutch youth by 2040 will be the healthiest in the world. This is a laudable pursuit, not to mention a very necessary one from an economic perspective. Healthcare costs are rising, which has necessarily also led to increasing strains on healthcare quality. Recent research shows that the affordability of healthcare is currently the most important issue for Dutch people, followed by quality of healthcare. The environment and sustainability are among the 10th place concerns among Dutch adults – not surprising, as adults seem to be much more skeptical about sustainability than their offspring. (Which, in turn, is another reason why the Earth has to depend more on the younger generation to secure its future.)

But what does all of this mean for companies? How do they ensure permanent affiliation with this growing group of conscious young people?

Young people want to work and buy from organizations with an honest story

Young customers can no longer be won through their parents – especially this growing target group of socially conscious consumers. These young people make their own choices. As a makeup brand you have not automatically won the daughter for your business if the mother is a loyal customer. In fact, the direction of influence may run in the opposite direction: daughter knows how to persuade her mother to switch to another brand because it is free from animal testing, uses less plastic, and obtains raw materials more fairly. Brands therefore have to continuously put more effort and work in order to gain loyalty.

In addition, young people grow up with the idea that shared services are normal. Ownership is less important. Examples include sharing cars as well as neighborhood initiatives to share things. The same applies to reuse: these days you can hardly run a decent community center without including a repair café.

Consumers expect greater responsibility from companies and increasingly base their choices for brands on this expectation. As a brand, you must be sustainable and relevant. And above all, you must be "real." Consumers, and especially young people, can poke through the façade and make mincemeat of you if you are not sincere. Through social media they quickly reach many fellow youths and their opinion is easily shared.

This not only applies to your products or services, but also to your image as an employer. Traditional companies that are slow to transition to more sustainable and socially relevant policies have more difficulty attracting talented young people. The message is clear: you must have an eye and ear for your role in an environment and the impact you have on people and the environment.

The Gretas of today will soon make their way to the top of the business world. That will give a further boost to the way companies operate sustainably. Today, travel bans are most typically announced for financial reasons, but in the future they will be more a standard tool to ensure that people travel as little as possible on carbon-intensive routes. And that is just one small example.

If you want to stay connected as a company with your young target group, make sure you know your place in the world. And propagate this in your own, authentic way. Then you have the future.