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How Young People Are Changing the World

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The opinions of young adults--which today have solidified into values--are not to be ignored. Not only are people in their 20s powerful voices within their communities, but they're also consumers. These first adults of the millennial generation (roughly, the people born between 1981 and 2000) are bellwethers for a group that's already estimated to earn more than $200 billion a year, of which they spend about $127 billion in the U.S. alone.

With this generation's population vastly outstripping that of its predecessors, the baby boomers and Gen Xers, it's not just spending power but also the ability to influence others that matters, especially as they're armed with the power of social media and narrowcast communications. While the effusions of the Flower Power generation could have been chalked up to irrelevant ranting, the exhortations of today's youth--for companies to clean up their acts, for the news media to be independent and for the privatization of public services to stop--are socially significant and underpinned by ethical meaning.

All this makes the results of the Global Youth Study important. The extensive 38-country online survey of 15,844 people ages 23 to 28 was fielded by SurveyShack in association with YouGovStone between July 2008 and December 2009. Its results will feed into the inaugural One Young World summit, a global leadership forum for hundreds of young leaders from the world's 192 countries taking place in London next week.

Corporate Power and Responsibility

In the study, 64 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "global corporations have too much power," and 81 percent agreed that corporations "must behave in an ethical way." More than half said business "can connect with people on a local level"--meaning they believe improvement is possible.

Young people are increasingly calling the shots as rising executives within global firms. They see an opportunity to improve business and the quality of their work environments, and they're making that change happen. And as young people increasingly sift out products not just with price and quality in mind, but also based on ethical metrics they apply to brands, they're manifesting their values in the real world.

Independent News Media

For all the criticism lately of the "mainstream media," it turns out that young adults around the world believe the media serves an important role in keeping a check on government and corporate interests. Young people are more media-literate than any previous generation. The Web and social media have given them access to news from all over the world, as well as endless shades of opinion. Being educated to think for themselves, they know the importance of having reliable information and have learned how to filter out propaganda and focus on sources they trust.

The Global Youth Study found that 64 percent agreed with the statement "The media performs an important role in keeping a check on state and corporate activities." This view is especially prevalent in important emerging nations: Seventy-seven percent of young adults in China agreed, 79 percent in India and 82 percent in Brazil.

The statement "All news media should be regulated so that it is clearly independent of state and corporate bias" scored agreement from 70 percent of respondents; an additional 23 percent were neutral. And it's a good thing they feel passionately about this one: Freedom House's Freedom of the Press index shows that press freedom is now in decline in almost every area of the world. It adds that only 17 percent of the planet's citizens live in countries that enjoy a free press.

Economic Stability

Half of the young people surveyed in the Global Youth Study say economic activity needs to scale back rather than grow. Eighteen percent agree strongly, and an additional 32 percent tend to agree that current levels of global economic activity are not sustainable.

The country-by-country breakdown is intriguing. In traditional economic powerhouses now in decline--the U.S., Germany and Japan--less than half of respondents agreed with that sentiment. It's in the newly booming nations that young people felt most strongly that current levels of economic activity are unsustainable: Fifty-two percent in Brazil, 66 percent in China, 66 percent in India and 73 percent in Russia.

This raises some important questions: Are these young adults seeing things in their countries that make them expect the economy to falter? Why don't young Americans, Germans and Japanese see a reason to doubt business as usual?

Local Trumps Global

Young people's political apathy is a myth. Just look at who gets the credit for propelling a young (by high-office standards), progressive (-sounding) candidate into the U.S. presidency. But one thing that's striking about millennials' political passions is where they lie. The Global Youth Study found that young people around the world tend to be more focused on local affairs. Overall, 40 percent said global politics are vital to their well-being, while 52 percent see local politics as vital.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, relatively low numbers of youth in stable European democracies regard either global or local politics as vital to their interests. Living in stability and prosperity has a way of making people take it for granted. Much higher numbers of youth take a strong interest in local and global politics in countries in the midst of transition. (Some stats: Seventy-eight percent local and 60 percent global in China, 68 and 59 percent in Mexico, 74 and 59 percent in Chile.)

The low numbers in developed countries could reflect indifference, or they could bespeak confidence. The high figures in the developing world might indicate a feeling of vulnerability, or they might reveal great levels of drive, energy and engagement.

Privatization

Despite the Tea Partiers' rhetoric about small government, young people around the world believe governments should run public services. A majority agreed with the statement "Public services should be run by the state rather than run by corporations." Just 10 percent said corporations should run public services.

Notably, more American youth agreed with that statement than those paragons of socialism, the French. Only 38 percent of young French adults agreed public services should be run by the state, and almost half were neutral. In the United States, 48 percent of young adults agreed and 39 percent were neutral. Only 13 percent of young Americans believed corporations should run public services.

Once again, we see that youth's sophisticated and nuanced views can't be reduced to a bumper sticker. This generation believes what it believes--and forms and shares its positions globally through the Internet and social media--and can't be shoehorned into convenient political narratives.

If youth sentiment were translated into votes, in most countries it would mean young voters standing against further privatization of public services. It could mean a mandate for governments to renationalize some services.