Companies around the world are fretting about how to stem the Great Resignation and, in particular, to engage the 19-25-year-olds who comprise “Gen Z.” As workforces around the world and the young people just entering it search for meaning and wellbeing, those of us working for sustainable development—across the social sector and in universities that are shaping the rising generation’s priorities—should recognize an extraordinary opportunity.
We have long struggled to inspire the most promising graduates to channel their energy towards working full-time for sustainable development. This is true even for Gen Z, well known for being more committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and sustainability than any generation that has come before. There’s no evidence, yet, that their choices about where to put their full-time energy are any different.
There’s never been a more opportune moment to take this on. Having founded Teach For America more than thirty years ago and led the development of the Teach For All global network over the last 15 years, I’ve worked with our teams over three decades to conduct focus groups of top prospects for our organizations. During 2022’s focus groups surveying diverse, civic-minded undergrads and recent graduates from all academic disciplines and career interests in Armenia, Austria, Brazil, India, and Colombia, I heard something new. For the first time ever, these prospects didn’t express concern that committing two years to join organizations like Teach For India or Ensina Brasil would put them “off track” from long-held career interests. Instead, they told us they were rethinking everything and searching for pursuits that would give them purpose and meaning.
We also heard a loud message around their commitment to prioritizing wellbeing. All of us in the social sector should listen and do everything we can to support this. And, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to help young people recognize that long-term fulfillment comes from immersing ourselves in things that matter—from finding congruence between our values and where we put our energy.
Universities, which have made significant commitments to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals, should help with this. It’s hard to imagine a bigger role they can play than to foster a sense of responsibility in this rising generation to put their full-time energy into solving the increasingly complex problems facing the world and to help them access opportunities to do this.
Yet they’ve largely resisted this idea. Around the world, administrators, professors, and career service offices are typically most driven by the value of “neutrality” among the competing employers. In practice, career service offices are generally driven by corporate interests, given they charge prospective employers for prime visibility opportunities, which means employers’ ability to pay determines their prominence among the offerings.
It’s time for universities to foster critical inquiry into which career choices make the biggest difference, and to prioritize enabling the most promising graduates to make choices that enable them to tackle the societal challenges we face.
We’ve seen some promising movement in this direction. In the UK, for example, a group of universities are working with Transform Society, a network promoting careers in public service, which aims to increase the number and diversity of students entering frontline public service roles. The universities engage this network to create Transform Society Challenges, which engage students in solving problems in their communities, thus gaining practical experience in public service alongside potential employers.
In the U.S., the University of Notre Dame is a positive outlier. Their commitment to social impact is integrated through coursework and career services. It begins with introducing freshmen to social impact through required courses, and continues through a “discernment” process guided by an advisor that involves deep inquiry into how students can best make impact during and beyond college.
With focused effort, we can succeed in enlisting the talent and energy needed to change the trajectory of progress towards sustainable development. Over decades, in different contexts around the world, we’ve seen that effective outreach and messaging works in persuading candidates with many other opportunities to channel their energy towards high-impact but historically low-status job choices. The UK’s Teach First, for example, has been among the 10 most popular graduate employers for 13 of the last 15 years, outranking the likes of Google, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and Amazon. Teach For Nigeria has inspired 79,000 applicants over the past six years.
Even last year, in the face of significant headwinds around teacher recruitment, we saw that in-person sourcing and persistent cultivation of top prospects works. For example, these strategies enabled Teach For Pakistan to more than double its cohort size, from 45 to 120, selected from 3,000 applicants. More than 40% came from the top four universities in the country, and all from the most selective 20%. The diverse cohort—comprised of those who have experienced inequity and others from privileged backgrounds—were not originally intending to teach; more than 40% were from STEM backgrounds and only 4% from an education background. When asked why they had chosen to join Teach For Pakistan, one incoming fellow brought to life the opportunity we have: “I want to join an organization where I truly serve my nation. Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders, and if we focus on our education system, then our Pakistan will develop smoothly.”
At this juncture when the challenges we face are clearer than ever, we need to commit to cultivating the rising generation to put their energy towards addressing them. In fact, one of the best indicators about how we’ll fare against our aspirations for sustainable development will be the career choices of the most promising leaders entering the workforce in the coming decade.