How to build a youth-positive culture

Organisations that succeed in the future will be those that are brave enough to reflect on their current culture. They’ll be prepared to dismantle anything that prevents them from attracting and retaining young talent. They’ll ensure their culture is responsive to the needs of future talent. And they’ll embrace Generation Z for who they are.

Young people are our future workforce, so it’s vital that organisations build a youth-positive culture. To be competitive, companies have to be able to attract talented young people, keep hold of them, and create an environment in which they can flourish. This is especially true when many employers are struggling to fill entry level roles and to retain entry level talent.

The importance of culture
Workplace culture is a complex and nuanced concept. It includes the shared beliefs and habits of employees, and the values and expectations of employers. Culture influences an organisation’s interactions with the rest of the world, the way business is conducted, and the way people are treated. And it can significantly affect employee engagement, productivity, innovation and reputation.

Each organisation’s unique culture will have evolved over time, but it is still a major factor in attracting and retaining talent. Your prospective employees will carefully consider your culture before applying for a role. And once onboard, they will only stay with you if their experience of your culture matches up to their expectations – that is, if they believe your workplace is a good fit with their own values and priorities.

What’s important to young people?
It’s widely understood that job-seeking millennials prioritise cultural fit above almost anything else. In that sense, Gen Zs – people born between 1996 and 2010 – are no different. However, Generation Z is entirely distinct in ways that impact employers:

  • Purpose: Gen Z is socially progressive and idealistic. They care about profit, but they also care about people and the planet. More than any other generation, Gen Z believes in purpose and accountability, the creation of equitable opportunities, and rigorous sustainable and green practices.
  • Inclusion: Generation Z is the most diverse generation yet, and it’s important for Gen Zs to be part of inclusive and supportive communities. In the workplace, they’re looking for connection and trust, and a culture in which they will be seen, heard and valued.
  • Authenticity: Gen Zs are questioning and sceptical – they’re much less likely than previous generations to trust traditional advertising and marketing. Instead, they’re looking for brands and employers that are genuine. They look beyond the surface for evidence of a deeper commitment to what employers say they stand for.
  • Digital natives: Gen Z is the first generation to have grown up with the internet as part of everyday life. Their lives are lived online, and they look to websites, apps and social media for all kinds of information – news, reviews and entertainment, but also advice and guidance on careers. It’s vital that employers are present on these channels, and understand the sort of style and content that works best.

A youth-positive culture is one which recognises and embraces all these distinct characteristics. Building it requires courage.

Taking it step by step
The organisations that succeed in the future will be those that are brave enough to reflect on their current culture and identify what needs changing. They’ll be prepared to dismantle anything that prevents them from attracting and retaining young talent. They’ll ensure their culture is agile and responsive to the needs of future talent. And they’ll embrace Generation Z for who they are.

So for all employers wanting to ensure their workplace is fit for the future, these are the steps to take and the questions to address:

  1. Evaluation: The first step involves examining and acknowledging the organisation’s current culture.
  • What do we stand for?
  • How are we perceived by the outside world?
  • How do people talk about us, both inside and outside the organisation?
  • Do we truly support diverse talent, and empower difference?

A proper, self-critical evaluation will help you identify things that need to change.

  1. Communication: You also need to consider how you communicate with the outside world, and how relevant you are to young people.
  • Which channels do you use, and what stories are you telling about your culture and your values?
  • Are you engaged in and talking about the things that are important to Gen Z?
  • Are you transparent about your environmental practices and authentic with your social impact messaging?

A company’s ‘narrative’ is becoming more and more important. Gen Z is looking for human connection, and is drawn towards employers that share their concerns and priorities.

  1. Outreach: Similarly, how do you connect with prospective employees in the real world? Are you proactively extending your reach, or hoping young talent will somehow find its way to you?
  • Do you have talent programmes that reach out into the community?
  • Are you connecting with local youngsters, in schools and colleges?
  • How is your business touching their lives?

Employers can play a significant role in shaping and delivering career support, by hosting workplace visits, skills masterclasses, mentoring and internships. There are clear benefits for young people, but this two-way engagement also helps employers understand the barriers faced by prospective employees.

  1. Opportunities: Truly connecting with diverse talent requires diverse approaches to recruitment. Many young people believe grad schemes are only for those who went to top universities, or for those from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Employers need to take positive action to ensure every opportunity is accessible to all those with the right aptitude and experience, regardless of background.
  • Have you considered the criteria required for internships, apprenticeships and graduate programmes?
  • Do you offer a range of opportunities for entry level talent?
  • Do you offer paid work experience placements?

Work experience is vital for all young people. But a paid internship can be transformative. Paid work placements remove barriers for under-represented young people, who despite their talents and skills are traditionally less likely to enter further and higher education, secure professional jobs and receive higher earnings.

  1. Listening: The most effective youth-positive culture is one that has young people at its heart. To retain young talent, organisations need to engage with young people, recognise what they want and need, and listen.
  • Do you have forums for entry-level talent, so insights can be shared?
  • Are there proper mechanisms in place, which allow for two-way communication?
  • Do you give meaningful responsibility to your young employees?

It’s worth recognising the difference between youth engagement and youth leadership. Engagement makes young people part of the conversation, but leadership empowers them with the responsibility to come up with solutions.

  1. Changes at the top: Perhaps one of the most difficult steps is to bring about change higher up the organisation. But given that retention is such a huge issue, once you’ve attracted talented young people, you need to find ways to ensure they stay.
  • Are there clear pathways for progression, so that those in entry level roles can look up and see people from similar backgrounds in leadership roles?
  • Can you create development frameworks that empower and allow young talent to flourish?
  • What can your existing leaders do, to support and mentor younger members of your teams?

For cultures to change, leaders need to change. This may be challenging, but when it means keeping hold of the people who will contribute to the long-term success of your organisation, it makes sense.

Celebrate everyone
Every organisation can choose to either reject talent, accept talent, respect talent or celebrate talent. An inclusive culture is one that celebrates everyone. This doesn’t come about quickly or effortlessly. But it does pay dividends, for businesses and for wider society.


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    6 December 2023


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