The Global View

Around the world, college students say sustainability is key

The world’s next-generation workforce — students in university today — have strong opinions about the future of business, sustainability and real-time access to a wealth of information. But many don’t believe the education they’ve received has fully prepared them to deal with the challenges related to those issues.

Students in today’s “Millenial generation” also expect to enter an increasingly complex and resource-constrained work world, yet they remain mostly optimistic and believe that unprecedented access to data will help them make the best possible decisions in their future jobs.

“What these students are saying is that they understand the complexities inherent in a world that is getting smaller and more interconnected all the time, and the implications of those changes for their careers,” said Ragna Bell, associate partner, and strategy and change leader in IBM’s Institute of Business Value. “As a result, they expressed some very different — and powerful — expectations about the responsibilities of business and governments, and by extension, for the paths their careers will take.”

IBM surveyed 3,600-plus university students in more than 40 countries to develop the study, “Inheriting a Complex World: Future Leaders Envision Sharing the Planet.” The research was intended as a followup to an IBM study of CEOs earlier this year, “Capitalising on Complexity.”

Among some of the interesting findings in the new student survey:

  • Students’ outlook on sustainability differed most sharply from that of CEOs in North America. Millenials there were almost three times as likely as CEOs to expect scarcity of natural resources to have a significant impact, and they were more than twice as likely to select environmental issues as a top external force. And 60 percent more students than CEOs expect to see customer expectations for social responsibility increase significantly.
  • More than anywhere else, students in China showed greater confidence than CEOs in the power of information. They were 67 per cent more likely than Chinese CEOs to see data having a large impact. They were also far more likely to approach decision-making analytically, relying on facts more than instinct, or even experience.
  • Only four out of 10 students said their education has prepared them well to address future work, business and sustainability issues. In terms of being prepared for global citizenship, Chinese students ranked their education lower than anywhere else, with only 38 per cent saying it was adequate. And in terms of education preparing students to be ready to benefit from the growth of emerging markets, Japan ranked lowest. Only 17 per cent of students there said their education had prepared them for that challenge.
  • Nearly half of students surveyed said organisations should optimise operations by globalising, rather than localising, to meet strategic goals.
  • Compared to CEOs, twice as many students identified globalisation and environmental issues as one of the top three factors to impact organisations. They were also more likely to expect businesses and society to experience major consequences from a scarcity of resources.

The IBM study also notes that, within four years, the Millenial generation will make up half of the global workforce.