For my niece Robin, who graduated from Vanderbilt University in May, an important part of her college experience was the volunteer work she did working with Sudanese refugees. Every week she spent hours helping them resettle in the Nashville area. She also worked to make Americans more aware of the suffering in Sudan's civil war, especially in the Darfur region, and helped raise money for resettlement costs. In her junior year, Robin spent a semester in Cape Town, South Africa, where she wrote an honors thesis on expressions of public opinion in South Africa's democratic system. Now she is contemplating going to graduate school in some kind of international field.
Robin's experience is not unusual today. She is part of what pollster John Zogby calls the "First Globals," a generation of 18-29 year-olds whose "planet is their playing field." Today's emerging adults see themselves as international citizens to an extent rarely experienced before. Coming of age in the era of the Internet, cheap travel, and surging study abroad programs, they're drawn to global music, sports, fashion, and service. Almost a quarter of the emerging adults Zogby polled expect to work abroad.
They could also be called the Empathic Generation. Their international experiences and education have made them more aware than any previous generation of how interconnected the world is. According to Zogby, they expect to be able to vacation, live and shop anywhere they like, and they prefer to do so with a clear conscience: they want people in developing countries protected from the depredations of multinational corporations and the destructive fiscal policies of multinational lending institutions.
Other research shows that the empathy of today's emerging adults extends across boundaries of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic group, and religion. According to the General Social Survey conducted annually by the University of Chicago, they are nearly unanimous in believing that women should have equal opportunities with men, and they reject gender stereotypes such as "men are better politicians than women are." UCLA's annual survey of thousands of college freshmen reports that two-thirds of them believe that same-sex marriage should be legal, a far higher proportion than in surveys of older age groups. Interethnic friendships and romantic relationships are no longer novel; the UCLA survey reports that 70% have socialized with someone of a different ethnic group in the past year. With regard to religion, even highly religious emerging adults share an accepting attitude toward people who believe differently, according to the National Survey on Youth and Religion. The common thread linking these different areas is that the Empathic Generation is more inclusive and more tolerant of group differences than any previous generation. Perhaps we have always been homo empathicus, as Jeremy Rifkin argues in "The Empathic Civilization," but for most of human history our empathy has been concentrated among a relatively small group of kin and tribe. Today, the empathy of emerging adults is broadening to encompass an ever-larger circle of humanity.
But how can they be the Empathic Generation? What about the popular stereotype that they are actually selfish slackers who are so absorbed in their electronic cocoons that they have little or no interest in the people within their own household, much less the whole world? The stereotype may actually be true for a small proportion of them, but it is unfairly applied to them as an age group and a generation. On the contrary, this is a generation who is volunteering in record numbers for organizations like the Peace Corps, Americorps, and Teach for America.
If they are the Empathic Generation, how did they become this way? Why are they more empathic than previous generations? I would say it is because we have both empathy and tribalism in our human nature--tribalism being the tendency to separate people into an in-group and an out-group, and extend empathy only to the in-group--but tribalism is no longer adaptive in a globalized world. Today it is more adaptive to disregard former barriers of race, gender, religion, culture, and nationality and seek contacts with persons around the globe. New media inventions make this possible as never before. Emerging adults have grown up playing electronic games via the Internet with "friends" they will never see, who could live anywhere, and this global awareness prepares them for later international contacts and connections.
Will their empathy extend far enough for them to make personal sacrifices in order to avert the kind of environmental catastrophes likely to result in the next century from global warming and the increase in the world's population to 9 billion by the year 2050? It's hard to say, but one thing that seems clear is that if there is an "Empathic Civilization" on the horizon, as Jeremy Rifkin forecasts, the way to it will be led by the young.