Unless you've been stranded on a desert island for the past few months, you've probably already heard that Millennials (age 18-34) are the most narcissistic, heroic, lazy, socially-conscious, car-hating, tattooed, financially screwed generation of Americans since, well, ever.
A year ago, when I was in the early stages of building the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), most people had never even heard the word "Millennial." But, as of last week, Millennials are on the cover of TIME magazine at newsstands worldwide.
The "Me Me Me Generation," as TIME has dubbed us, is finally getting the attention it deserves.
And yet, much of this attention, the TIME piece being a prime example, has so far favored utilizing slices of data to make breezy generalizations (and, on good days, infographics!) about Millennials. Conclusions about my generation's outrageous narcissism invariably miss the point by overlooking the diverse passions and interests that are collectively shaping the future of our country.
Those who say America's best days are behind us will be proven wrong.
The Millennial Trains Project is built on the belief that Millennials -- as individuals and as a generation -- have the power to implement the ideas and innovations that will carry our nation forward. Our crowd-funded transcontinental train journeys, the first of which will travel from San Francisco, CA to Washington, D.C. this August, are designed to provide a platform for participants to advance creative projects of their own design on a national scale.
Over the past two weeks, my faith in the future of our country and the "Me Me Me" generation has been bolstered. The pioneering Millennials that have submitted projects to get on board MTP's inaugural journey represent a generation that is striving to connect passion, purpose, and action in totally new and creative ways.
Surveying the list of early applicants, three uniquely millennial themes emerge, all of which support an optimistic view of America's future.
Nine out of the first ten Millennials that launched applications to get on board were women. There's Nomiki Konst, who ran for U.S. Congress in Arizona at age 28; Autumn Carter, who leads a California-based non-profit focused on reviving failing cities; Cameron Hardesty, a White House Digital Press Secretary with a passion for poetry; and Kia McClain, a spoken-word poet from Missouri who is on a mission to build confidence among autistic youth.
These young women are united by the fearless way in which they are pursuing their individual passions, which -- as a rule -- are primarily focused on serving others.
As Warren Buffett recently noted (and shared via his second-ever tweet!), America's economic engine has historically operated at or below 50 percent; as more-and-more millennial women step-up to public and private sector leadership roles, "women will be a major reason we will do so well."
"Sweat Everyday," a project focused on promoting accessible strategies for maintaining active and balanced lifestyles, demonstrates how Millennials are recognizing linkages between personal fitness and national welfare.
As Reuters recently reported, obesity in America is now adding $190 billion to annual healthcare costs, exceeding smoking as our most costly public health problem. Finding ways to "sweat everyday" is as good for our personal well-being as it is for deficit reduction and national competitiveness.
Another project, from Amanda Itliong, a Detroit-based social justice worker, proposes to look at healthy living from the perspective of sickness, and the experiences of chronic illness that, as she notes, "can connect people across all other boundaries (i.e. race, class, age, national origin, type of disease, etc.)." Here, again, the idea that our individual experiences connect us to others, and form community, is present.
BUILDING FOUNDATIONS FOR A NEW ECONOMY
Having witnessed the 2008 financial meltdown and begun entering the workforce during a period of record-high unemployment, Millennials are searching for more sustainable and inclusive strategies to drive economic growth and support long-term prosperity. Malcolm Kenton, for instance, aims to explore the role that improved rail systems should play in next-gen sustainable transportation infrastructure.
Christina Wallace, a Harvard Business School graduate and successful e-commerce startup founder who now runs the Startup Insititue in New York, aims to conduct research into how workforce training programs can help job creators and job seekers connect more easily throughout the mid-west's growing startup ecosystems, also known as the "Silicon Prairie."
Others, such as Stephanie Nguyen, are using the train to experiment with new technologies that could revolutionize entire industries. Her project is designed to explore opportunities for Google Glass and other wearable technologies to be adopted in communities where our train will stop. A first generation American, she sees her project as an extension of her parents' pioneering experience of immigrating to the United States.
THE NEW PIONEERS
As these examples show, Millennials -- in addition to being self-centered and technologically savvy -- are leading with purpose, getting in shape, caring for others, exploring new frontiers, and building the foundations for a better tomorrow.
I have faith in America's future and the potential of the "Me Me Me" generation" (or whatever else you want to call us). That faith stems not from averages, majorities, or fancy infographics, but rather from the stories of brave and creative individuals like those I have mentioned.
Take note: today's Millennials are the new pioneers.
Follow Patrick Dowd on Twitter: www.twitter.com/millennialtrain