ATHENS -- “On a scale of one to five, how would you rate your generation?”

That was the first question Brian Smith, president of Coca-Cola Europe, Middle East and Africa, received from Reporter Katrin Bennhold at last month's The New York Times Athens Democracy Forum in Greece. Smith was participating in an intergenerational panel discussion titled “Bridging the Generational Gap” aimed at identifying reasons young people are less engaged with the democratic process, from voting to civic engagement.

He was joined by Irina Bokova, director general, Unesco; Kerry Kennedy, president, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights; and international university students from the U.S., Africa, Greece and Pakistan.

During the session, the students expressed concern about unemployment, equal access to education, rapid industry consolidation especially in the technology sector, and gender and income inequality. It also became clear that they are waiting for the previous generation to take responsibility for the current status of affairs and provide solutions.

Youth Empowerment, Collective Action Key to Addressing Global Issues

Smith listened carefully to these concerns, giving the previous generation a “2” rating on a scale of 1-5. In order for serious economic and societal issues to be addressed and achieve progress, he argued, society must boost cooperation, stop the finger pointing and empower young people.

“If the opportunities don’t exist for youth to be able to work and to be engaged in society, all these problems [we are discussing] start to ferment and are created," he said. "Our generation has to find ways to empower youth. It’s easier said than done, but that is the key.”

Corporate Survival into the Next Generation

The students expressed mistrust toward institutions, arguing that many public entities and corporations are resistant to change.

Smith recognized the need for more accountability, transparency and agility across public and private sectors, as well as the need to operate with sustainability at the center of business practices.

“Corporations that do not operate based on a social contract will disappear," he said. "That social contract, whatever that ends up becoming, whatever those important issues are for the communities that businesses work in, if they do not become part of what we do and what we invest in, then consumers will eventually drop us. Its survival into the next generation.”

More Cooperation, Less Polarization

Smith stressed the importantce of addressing key global issues collectively. “It can’t just be one entity, it has to be private sector, NGOs, Governments, empowered youth working together toward solutions," he said. "When you have that virtuous circle, set targets and scalable initiatives that can make a difference in a country or continent, then you can see incredible results. But it means getting everyone together and willing to cooperate and separating the polarization and finger pointing.”

Coca-Cola recognizes and embraces the idea that the collaborative power of partnerships can achieve much greater collective impact than would be possible by any one organization or sector working in isolation. The company applies a Golden Triangle partnership approach to stakeholder engagement, spanning the public, private and civil society sectors. This model is a core part of Coke's business strategy, and can foster sustainable business growth, environmental stewardship and social progress.

For more information on The Coca-Cola Company’s commitments and partnerships aimed toward growing a sustainable business and adding community value, read our 2016 Sustainability Report