09/29/2010 07:38 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How 20-Somethings Will Shape The Future

"Spoiled," "cocky," "listless," espousing the values of Peter Pan and Paris Hilton: these are just a smattering of the descriptions found in newspapers and studies of "Millennials," the generation born after 1980. Some opine that this group cannot and will not contribute to American society as previous generations have. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues in a September 11, 2010 column that perhaps America is slipping in superpower status because our young people are not motivated by values of hard work, self-sacrifice and rejection of instant gratification that America's post-depression era "Greatest Generation" personified.

Perhaps Mr. Friedman is right: 20-somethings today do not share the same values nor are motivated by the same inspirations of their predecessors. But they do possess qualities that if channeled properly will build a more open and creative society. Millennials are strongly averse to conventionality, and tend to opt for mold-breaking lifestyle choices. They have a broader aperture for, and are less hindered by rigid convention about group, skin color and other ways that had Balkanized previous generations. This is the biggest game-changer because although we've been living in an "open society" for decades, this is the first generation to maximize the four corners of that concept.

Growing up a child of immigrants in the ethnically rich Petri dish that is Chicago, I was always perplexed by why some adults insisted on identifying themselves singularly through their ethnic, religious or racial affiliations. The neighbor was "Mexican" and the shopkeeper "Greek," not just a friendly neighbor or diligent shopkeeper. As a young girl coming of age on the Southwest Side, I had a crew of friends--- Mexican, Hindu, Jewish and African American--as diverse as the city itself. We often scoffed at our out-of-touch family members and demurred from even intimating that we were anything but Americans. Identity was tied to accomplishments, such as being a great soccer player or spelling bee winner, not necessarily a devout Muslim or patriotic Irish-American. We valued our ethnic backgrounds but refused to be boxed in. Many Millennials are not only tolerant of diversity; they have been organically socialized to embrace it as part of personal identity. Only by truly integrating can one reach a desired level of self-actualization.

In a September 5, 2010 column, New York Times Kathleen Parker captures this through her description of a scene of four students--an African-American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Syrian--eating together near a university, laughing and coexisting in friendship at a time where some of their brethren can not find common ground. "The ancient rivalries and the heavy burden of history are being lifted among a rising generation of world citizens," Parker writes. She admits that the blind collegiality of many young people can and does surprise older generations who came of age in a very different reality.

The open-mindedness of Millennials applies not only to interpersonal relationships but also to professional and life choices. Many Millennials have a quiet aversion to the conventional money-making career path and yearn for more diverse, globally oriented and civic-minded experiences. In many ways, some are reacting to the paths promoted by their Baby Boomer parents. Many Millennials came to age witnessing their parents work brutally long hours for little personal fulfillment, and grew to resent the subordination of family time to work and the stress this brought home. Millennials strive toward professional success but not at the sacrifice of personal fulfillment.

Instead of "things," today's young person wants a unique personal narrative as a central core of their identity. They also want to relate and feel related to. As the first generation to truly come of age in the Internet era, feeling connected and part of a broader conversation is a driving force for Millennials. It is no surprise that today's technological innovators, such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Chad Hurley of Youtube, are 20-somethings who understand that the bonds and similarities between members of their generation can be far more organic than the bonds and similarities between members of the same religion or ethnic group.

The language of individuality and expression espoused by Facebook or Twitter is universal and increasingly becoming more integral to self-identity for Millennials than the language of their homeland. Not all young Iranians relate to the severe rhetoric of some of the mullahs, but most know what Twitter is and speak the language of absurdly concise statements required by that means of communication with defiant dexterity. I am not implying that Twitter can solve the problems in the Middle East. But perhaps in 20 years global citizens or political leaders will be able to relate to each other with just a little more ease because of the sense of connectivity among many young people today.

Admittedly, this group also has its foibles. Commitment and decisiveness are not necessarily strong suits for some Millennials. An August 22, 2010 New York Times magazine article cites that one-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year, 40 percent move back home with their parents at least once, and most go through an average of seven jobs. The same things that can be viewed as positives in today's society--endless opportunities for many, less rigid social views, an acceptance of the unconventional, no one way to success--can also cause young people to feel utterly overwhelmed and lost.

Academics and opinion-makers are drawing attention to these pitfalls. Some dedicate self-help books to "fix" Millennials and instruct them on how they should be living. But each generation rises to the challenges of their time in different ways. The recession has focused the minds of Millennials as they struggle to find employment and stability. While some live in their parents' basements, many others are tapping in to their innate improvisational skills and openness. Instead of limiting their options to corporate firms or marketing behemoths which just aren't hiring, they are spending months at sustainable farming communities, living in tents and learning how to create the healthiest product with their hands. They work for no pay, only food. This gumption and resourcefulness will make Millenials the leaders of the future in green energy, sustainable food and global peace initiatives.

Every generation leaves an imprint on history by the way it confronts and overcomes the problems of their time. Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation courageously demonstrated the highest form of personal sacrifice to fight the enemy abroad and rebuild America thereafter. Millennials are just surfacing in society. But they are also spending their 20s honing the tools they will need to be effective members of society. The grit and determination of the Greatest Generation was a perfect fit to the times they lived in, while the nascent malleability of the Millennials is integral to the world today.