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The #Hashtag Generation: Young Latinos and America's Future

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Thursday, 4pm: we log on to read Kim Kardashian's tweets. Or Snooki's. Or, now, even Charlie Sheen's. It doesn't matter...

I'm amazed by the junk that's out there and our willingness to consume it. But I think Americans are actually tired of "fast-food" culture and need something more substantial. I think we hunger for a new kind of voice -- one with guts and creativity, not just vapid narcissistic tweets.

But, where can we find it? Well, there's a rising generation of people out there that might be a case in point: Young Latinos. They are the early adopters of digital technology and alpha influencers in social media but they're also the undocumented DREAM Act activists who took a courageous public stand that put them at the risk of deportation. The young Latinos who are the first to adopt new technology along with the ones who stood up for themselves regardless of legal status represent something very American: a combination of valor and innovation that is sorely needed in today's shallow, cynical and embattled U.S. society.

Several trends point to young Latinos as one of the saving graces on the American horizon. Although Latinos overall have less education and lower incomes than whites, the younger you go in the Latino demographic the more these differences disappear. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that when you compare Millennials (those born after 1980) whether Latino or white, the use of new technology is at the same high levels.

As we move faster and faster into a world defined by social media interactions, it's worth knowing how Latinos use social media because it reveals a fundamental quality of this generation. Yes, we use Twitter, too, but in a different way. We're not selling a personal brand on reality TV but creating community. Giovanni Rodriguez writes that young Latinos "not only index higher on Twitter than any other ethnic group, but also self-index higher: that is, we tend to self-identify, self-organize, and self-categorize more than other folks. The tool of choice for all of this self-indexing is the Twitter hashtag."

He gives the example of an actual hashtag on twitter: #Twitterlandia. This virtual hastag could stand for the symbolic site where young Latinos are remaking America in their image. Telemundo just released a study on what they call young Latino Americans (YLAs), ages 18-34. It helps flesh out how this generation sees itself in terms of culture and language and gives us an emerging outline of a major American cultural shift.

They found that young Latinos love being bi-cultural and see themselves as both American and Latino. While staying true to their natal culture and even going through some retro-acculturation (e.g., being given the name Mary at birth but changing it to Maria as a young adult), they also fully embrace the American lifestyle. Fluidity and mobility are their bywords. They easily move back and forth between English and Spanish and live in a highly fluid social environment, having friends from all ethnic groups and "live" online on their computers and especially on their mobile devices. This adaptability is key to being able to thrive in a 21st century globalized economy.

Beyond creating Twitter communities, having high mobile usage and the guts to take principled stands, this generation is also, by demographic default, going to be the backbone of the U.S. workforce for the next thirty to fifty years.

Take the situation in Texas, for example. The 2010 Census shows that Texas gained more population than any other state and that growth was driven by Latinos, who made up more than two-thirds of the increase. Young Latinos now make up 48.3 percent of Texans under the age of 18. The state will get four new congressional seats, the most of any state. The white population slowed down in its growth as its fertility rate has fallen below sustainable levels, which sets up an interesting contrast of age, culture and economics in the Lone Star State. The New York Times calls Texas' huge young Latino expansion a "tipping point" from which there's no return.

Along the same lines, Laurel Brubaker Calkins at Bloomberg News reports that, "Whites who dominated Texas's population for generations are growing older and more dependent on the earning power and taxes of younger Hispanics, now poised to take over as the state's largest demographic group...Hispanics disproportionately fill the ranks of younger Texans." Texas and also California are where the rest of the country is headed.

There is also a confluence of two huge demographic developments that could either bring us together or further tear apart our fragile social fabric: white Baby Boomers are entering retirement just as young Latinos are entering the workforce. This historic conjunction means that in a rational world it would be time to set aside prejudice and bias against young Latinos but we don't live in a rational world. We live in an emotional world full of unconscious motivations that seems more and more divided by age, ethnicity, income and education.

In that world we need the fortitude displayed by the young Latinos who stood up for the DREAM Act regardless of the consequences. That spirit of resolve is needed as society faces the conundrum of young Latinos supporting older whites. But we also need the innovative streak of the new Latino social media arbiters.

We're going to have to invest in the future and that means education. You could call this the Latino Imperative. With all the big challenges facing this country, there is one that must be addressed now: educating young Latinos. Unfortunately, due to the severe economic recession, public education is being cut to the bare bone at the state and local levels and this may well jeopardize the resiliency of the young Latino community that must shoulder its increasing responsibility as workers and taxpayers.

It would be easy to call up some blind hope and say that young Latinos are going to save us from the antics of Charlie Sheen and Snooki but that's not the way the world works. Young Latinos are an important part of the country's economic future but it's up to all of us. We need to follow the lead of the young Latinos in #Twitterlandia: be fluid, mobile, brave and innovative. Without those attributes, we could all be headed for the perfect storm of generational trench warfare that might result in an economic dystopia for all.