Growth Is Not Enough, Young People Want to Live in a Decent Society

A newly published global survey reveals that, for young people at least, social -- not economic -- challenges are the major priority. Politicians and business leaders should take heed.
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Judging by our politicians' squabbling over each quarter's GDP figures, you would think that economic growth is the only thing that matters in life. So it's refreshing that a newly published global survey reveals that, for young people at least, social -- not economic -- challenges are the major priority. Politicians and business leaders should take heed. Growth may be desirable but it is no panacea, according to Millennials, who were born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

When Millennials are asked to name the top challenges facing society over the next several years, the new survey shows that only three of the top 10 are economic; of the top five, only one. Millennials are, not surprisingly given economic trends in the world, concerned about unemployment (37 percent) and inequality in wealth and income (28 percent). Yet they are also just as concerned about resource scarcity (33 percent), climate change (32 percent), and "crime / personal safety" (23 percent) among the top five issues. The study, commissioned by the global consultancy Deloitte, polled more than 7,000 Millennials in 28 countries.

Notably, the emphasis on social over economic challenges was found to be consistent among Millennials across both developing and developed countries. When asked about the purpose of government, Millennials prioritized education, access to hospitals, employment and the protection of citizens from crime above improving the financial wellbeing of citizens. Millennials see the role of governments as advancing social progress rather than just providing economic opportunity and trusting that everything else of value will automatically follow.

This echoes the findings of the Social Progress Index, published for the first time in April 2013 and nearing its April 2014 update, in seeing that economic growth alone is not sufficient to bring about social progress. In a world in which "national success" is typically defined by whether Gross Domestic Product is rising or falling and at what rates, it is refreshing to see the next generation so emphatically recognizes the importance of addressing social challenges.

The Social Progress Index, which assesses more than 50 characteristics of a growing list of nations, is the most comprehensive and ambitious effort to date to measure social progress in different nations. Rather than focusing on limited economic factors, it asks the questions that are fundamental to the wellbeing of citizens and which Deloitte's survey shows are on the minds of Millennials: Does a country have the capacity to satisfy the basic needs of its people? Does a country have the infrastructure and the instruments to allow its citizens and communities to improve the quality of their lives? Does a country offer the proper environment for each citizen to have the opportunity to reach their full potential?

Millennials, the survey reaffirms, also believe that the responsibility for social progress lies not just with governments, but also with businesses -- partly due to the perceived failures of governments to address social challenges successfully. Governments must do better, Millennials seem to say, but businesses need to contribute beyond their bottom line as well. The global economic downturn and its many consequences may well have left the impression that national governments, and the people they are responsible for, are at the mercy of businesses choosing to be either good or bad actors. Millennials seem to care more than previous generations that businesses choose and then prove themselves to be good.

Deloitte's findings are published just weeks after the 80th anniversary of the creation of GDP -- a timely opportunity to reignite the debate about the value of economic indicators as the principal measures of progress. The Millennial emphasis on nation states addressing social challenges over economic ones highlights the value of new measures of social progress to complement GDP as a measure of economic progress.

The findings of the Millennials survey suggest that measures like the Social Progress Index will play an increasing role in how the next generation defines progress and chooses what organizations to support. It seems nearly certain that this generation will use new tools to evaluate the effectiveness of business, governments and civil society organizations alike. This ambitious generation will demand ambitious businesses and ambitious governments, held to account by performance on ambitious measures. Those who plan to employ or market to this generation, those who want their votes, and those who write this generation off as too self-absorbed, take notice.

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