Millennials (the unfortunate moniker linked to the generation now in their late teens and 20s) get a lot of flack for needing so much positive reinforcement. We apparently have too much self-esteem, too little motivation, and outrageously high expectations that make us ill-suited to corporate environments and grumpy when faced with the idea of "paying our dues."
Recently, however, it has begun to seem likely that the Occupy movements, in partnership with the Arab Spring, will succeed in changing that image pretty drastically.
Occupy has already, after all, decoded a key element of working successfully with this much-derided demographic. A piece of information that may prove useful to bigger, cause-based activist groups worldwide.
For a generation raised on post-9/11 fear and a rampant excess of leadership, creating a consensus movement initially seemed somewhat laughable, but it turns out that Millennials thrive in consensus environments.
Just two years ago the Pew Research center described Millennials as "more inclined toward trust in institutions than were either of their two predecessor generations -- Gen Xers (who are now ages 30 to 45) and Baby Boomers (now ages 46 to 64) when they were coming of age."
Occupy, however, has shown a different side of us, and in retrospect it makes sense. If we all thrive on positive reinforcement, what better system to participate in than one in which we constantly get approval from all of our peers. Consensus makes each of us feel powerful and important. Occupy Wall Street proved this quite rapidly. It immediately had something that no organization in my lifetime has sustained for long: dedicated, educated, competent volunteer participants invested for the long haul.
I've only once volunteered with a big anti-war organization. It was at an office near my parents' house, the headquarters for the group that was behind most of the major marches and rallies in New York of the last ten years. There were several groups working out of the office, and I went home with a lot of anti-war swag (flags, tee-shirts, posters... ) but within moments of joining the regular world again I knew I would never go back.
Nobody at this office learned my name, my story, or asked if there was anything I was good at. I was a walking, talking, envelope stuffer and package packer. During that period I volunteered at several non-profits dealing with other causes, dabbled in campaign work, and generally did my best to look for activities and jobs that would help "save the world."
Eventually, however, after a lot more envelope stuffing, I had to give it up. I was a college graduate. I would have done skilled work for free, even if it meant being trained. I really did want to help. I just didn't want to die of boredom and loneliness while doing it. And why should I for unpaid work?
By comparison, in using the consensus model, Occupiers give each participant a chance to work at something they are good at and interested in. There are plenty of dedicated activists, for example, that like to organize art projects. Some like to cook. Some want nothing more than to sit on Twitter all day long. Others want to hold cameras and document the proceedings.
At Occupy, every one of those people can contribute in a concrete way to the common good without being hazed, assigned boring menial work, or left without a voice. Organizing their movement this way has kept Occupy from pushing all of their new membership at the bottom of the totem pole, where it is hard to keep even dedicated volunteers invested.
Perhaps they are nothing more than a group of frustrated people who are willing to sit through interminable meetings, but every Occupier feels central to the movement's collective success or failure. The only pre-requisite placed on any of the Occupiers is patience.
Millennials are part of a generation that has already "volunteered" our way into massive debt in the name of resume-building, generally at companies that should have been paying us. If we now desire to feel useful and important, maybe that's OK.
Our collective grasp of social media and communication technology makes us indispensable to any political or social movement anyway. Perhaps Occupy and the other youth movements happening around the world can teach the rest of the activist community how to harness our power for good. After all, more entrenched cause-based groups can and should aim to make volunteering for the good of society feel truly different from interning at a travel agency.
If anti-war, anti-poverty, and pro-health care organizations would give us creative openings instead of handing us a stack of envelopes to fill, the results would speak for themselves.
Follow Lila Nordstrom on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lilainchelsea