In the op-ed David Brooks wrote for the New York Times last Friday, he portrayed the millennial generation (which we call First Globals) as a group resistant to idealism and nonplussed by global activism. According to Brooks, young people today are disillusioned by the current system but too wary of untested antidotes to push for alternatives. They feel they must be egocentric to be successful.
It is true that many First Globals discount the power of governments and other institutions to effect change, but we would argue that this disenchantment has not led to disengagement. On the contrary, this disillusion with the system combined with new technologies and a shift in parenting styles has increased social consciousness and enabled this First Global generation to approach change making in more direct ways than ever before.
For First Globals, increased access to information has created a heightened awareness of the world's challenges, often leading to a deeper commitment to social and economic justice. The participatory, inclusive nature of the Internet, particularly social networks, has enabled First Globals to make their voices heard on a larger scale. They connect across geographic, socio-economic, religious, and ethnic barriers, in many cases becoming more empathetic and more likely to act. This phenomenon is reinforced by First Globals' parents, who, having lived through the tumultuous '60s and '70s, encourage their First Global children to stand up for what they believe in and show them respect for doing so, thus imbuing them with a sense responsibility and ambition to do good.
The combination of these factors has inspired increasing numbers of young people to put more emphasis on social capital. Between 2003 and 2011, applications to Teach for America, the now-famed non-profit organization that recruits high-achieving college graduates to teach in low-income schools throughout the U.S., have grown from 15,000 to 48,000 -- more than doubling their applicant base from 2008 to 2010. A number of Teach for America alumni are now revolutionizing inner city education by starting their own charter schools and bringing hope to kids and their families who have put up with substandard schools and impossible social conditions for multiple generations. Indigenous versions of Teach for America are appearing in Argentina, China, and India.
Within the business community, First Globals seem to be more socially conscious as well. A 2011 study published by Deloitte attests that 92 percent of millennial employees surveyed believe that success should be measured by more than profit. When asked to choose between elements that more aptly captured their view of business' purpose, the majority answered societal development. Responses of employees from older generations more often cited value and profit as primary purposes.
Examples of young people creating socially conscious enterprises abound.
Two friends from high school, Thomas Smyth and James Sawabini, began raising small amounts of venture capital in the U.S. after college graduation to start a business in Zambia which now employs over 100 African young people selling solar equipment to power lights and cellphones where the electric grid is absent. They are respectively 22 and 24 years old.
On the non-profit side, Eden Full was 19 when she founded SunSaluter, an enterprise aimed at making solar energy more easily accessible in developing communities. Two 21-year-old graduates of the University of Vermont, Sasha Fisher and Libby Daghlian, joined forces to create and expand Sparks Microgrants, an NGO operating in Rwanda and Uganda which empowers rural Africans to build and operate schools, water access, and agricultural projects. And when he was just 18, David Burstein created a voter engagement organization that attracted 25,000 new voters in the 2008 election.
Activism platforms such as Change.org (a venture started by two First Globals before they turned 30) enable this generation to circumvent traditional obstacles to change and contend with the most formidable of adversaries. Organized as a for profit B Corporation which puts weight on both social good and earnings, Change.org has nurtured campaigns which have allowed a 22-year-old to upend Bank of America's plan to introduce new fees for its debit cards, enabled a 23-year-old New York grad student to successfully petition Sallie Mae to change its forbearance policy on student loan delinquencies, and empowered a 13-year-old to create a campaign which the Governor of Illinois admitted led him to veto a bill that would have prohibited towns from banning plastic bags.
There are plenty of silly TV shows, young people who are justifiably worried about their financial future, and new college graduates who want to make their fortune in private equity. These are not, and will not be, the things that define the achievements of the First Globals.
This is the first generation that embraces the notion of "shared fate." They understand the connection each has to the other across the globe. But most of all, this is a generation which believes that as individuals they have the power to effect real change, not always by transforming our institutions, but by ignoring and circumventing them when necessary. They believe in measurable results and they focus on action not talk. They are not perfect, but the vision of the thousands who are leading them is breathtaking.
Haley Cohen, 23, is the Economist Correspondent for Argentina and Uruguay. Howard Dean, a former Governor of Vermont and Democratic Presidential candidate, teaches at Hofstra and Yale.
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