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One Young World eradicates old perceptions of youth

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One might expect, at an event attended by hundreds of 18- to 30-year-olds from around the world in one of Europe’s most attractive cities, to be kept up all night by hotel doors banging, drunken singing and goodness knows what else.

However, as has been widely reported, the Millennial generation are less keen on Bacchanalian pleasures than previous ones.

In any case, the “young leaders” attending the One Young World Summit at The Hague this week had more serious matters to attend to, especially when they or their employers have parted with more than £3,000 each for the privilege of attending.

One Young World, a UK-based charity that was launched in 2009, sets itself lofty ambitions. It aspires to “gather together the brightest young leaders from around the world, empowering them to make lasting connections to create positive change”.

Its annual summit brings together “the most valuable young talent from global and national companies, NGOs, universities and other forward-thinking organisations”.

A windy talking shop, then, like lots of other conferences? A junior version of the often up-itself Davos summit organised annually by the World Economic Forum? No chance.

Perhaps because of the youthful age of most of the participants, the Hague summit was suffused with optimism and positivity.

It was by no means a rich world love-in, either. Yes, there were plenty of attendees from the G7 nations (the UK, the US, Canada, Japan, Italy, France and Germany), but it was possible during a stroll through the reception area in the main conference hall to see delegates from India, Vietnam, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, Colombia and scores of other countries in fairly short order.

This rich diversity of delegates and the energy, enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity that they bring has attracted some impressive guest speakers.

From the world of business, those speaking included Ben van Beurden, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell; Rakesh Kapoor, chief executive of the Durex-to-Mr Sheen group RB; Bob Dudley, chief executive of BP; Ronan Dunne, president of Verizon Wireless, one of the world’s biggest mobile phone operators; John Roberts, founder of AO.com; Tidjane Thiam, chief executive of Credit Suisse and Peter Schwarzenbauer, one of BMW’s top executives.

Other participants include the former prime ministers Sir John Major and Gordon Brown, the actress Amber Heard, the singer and music producer Akon, the astronaut Ron Garan and Dambisa Moyo, the distinguished economist.

As one might expect at such a gathering, many of the discussions concerned protecting the environment – in particular, fighting plastic pollution – eliminating death from preventable diseases, defending human rights and alleviating poverty.

Issues like that have galvanised the young over many decades. What was different though, from the protest marches of, say, the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s is that today’s youth are prepared to accept and regard business as an honest partner in tackling some of these challenges.

Perhaps that is because many delegates have grown up in countries where, in their lifetimes, living standards and life expectancy have been improved immeasurably as a result of globalisation, the collapse of communism and the development of market economies.

An unemployed car worker in Ohio who voted for Donald Trump may not take as positive a view of globalisation but here, in The Hague, it was possible to meet plenty of people who have benefited from it in spades.

But perhaps it is because big businesses themselves realise they need to make more of an effort to engage with wider society. The global financial crisis did not just damage sentiment towards the financial services sector. That challenge is more difficult because this generation are digital natives and take for granted the ease of communication, on a global scale, that the Baby Boomers and Generation X could only dream of at their age.

It is a generation that can sniff out what one might call bovine excrement more rapidly than their predecessors and can see through marketing and advertising strategies more cynically.

So any business leaders trying to engage with this cohort needed to come up with plenty of proof that they are genuinely committed to making the world a better place. There were plenty prepared, at the Hague, to give it a go.

Mr van Beurden, for example, spoke with sincerity about the importance of reliable energy supplies and described what Shell is doing to bring electricity to millions of people who do not benefit from it today. Mr Dudley spoke about the drive towards decarbonisation and the push for greater fuel efficiency.

While the business speakers did not escape tough questions, some were surprised to be listened to politely, even applauded.

“I was warned that I might get quite a hostile reception,” one CEO said. “But that didn’t turn out to be the case at all.”

But what emerges from these events?

One CEO summed it up like this: “Our people come back from One Young World full of energy and ready to inspire their colleagues with new ideas and new thinking. It’s invaluable for them and for us.”

There is a lot of cynicism about Millennials. It’s easy to denigrate them as self-absorbed, narcissistic, politically correct snowflakes.

It’s less easy, on the evidence of the Hague summit, to dismiss their sincerity – and determination – to genuinely tackle poverty, climate change and human rights abuses. Or their pragmatism in accepting that business has a role to play in those battles and not automatically dismiss it as the enemy.

But if only they’d let their hair down a bit from time to time. Perhaps I need to get back to the hotel bar on Saturday night at the end of the event.

(c) Sky News 2018: One Young World eradicates old perceptions of youth