Recession Kids

04/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The recession is a bad deal for everyone. Debt explodes. Dreams are deferred. Job loss drains the bank account. Futures are questioned.

It seems young people, though, are uniquely unprepared for the world in which they now find themselves.

They are coming of age in a world where global-warming pollution is dumped by the 70-million-ton truckload into the sewer formerly known as our atmosphere; where billions live each day in the grinding no-medicine, no-light, and no-family type of poverty; where seventy billion animals -- about the number of humans who've lived in all of history -- suffer from cruel and inhumane treatment inside factory farms.

And now -- their very own job crisis.

"Many of them become different -- and damaged -- people,", according to Krysia Mossakowski, a sociologist at the University of Miami. Along with other researchers, she has found that in young adults, long bouts of unemployment provoke long-lasting changes in behavior and mental health. For people just starting their careers, the recession's damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of lost generation.

Large numbers of our youth, however, are calling into question whether they are really the passive pawns of previous economic, social, and environmental missteps. While the unemployment rate among young people is the highest since WWII, their capacity to embrace the big, selfless, and profitable career paths of tomorrow has never been higher. They just have no choice other than to innovate their way out of this mess.

Ory Okolloh (24) doesn't just use Google Maps to find a restaurant, she harnesses it to track atrocities and human rights violations. Derek Lomoas (26) doesn't see business as evil; he sees it as a tool to distribute interactive games for children in Africa. Mark Rembert (23) doesn't use his mechanical engineering degree to build bigger buildings; he's using it to repower his city with renewable energy.

Skeptical? Check the research. A major research study into the values and attitudes of this generation was recently conducted. Born between 1978 and 2000, the Millennials include 95 million young people up to 30 years of age -- the biggest, most diverse, and best educated age group in US history. Older generations see needs as opportunities to volunteer; they see needs as opportunities to emotionally and financially thrive. They have a commitment to common good over individual gain, an ethos that reaches across traditional divisions such as race, ideology, and partisanship. They are radically pragmatic. They are ecologically intelligent and socially tolerant.

And more than any generation before, they get this paradox: selflessness is profitable.

Millennials refuse to be constrained by past conventions. Of all the attributes on which they were asked to compare themselves to earlier generations of Americans, they identified their willingness to "embrace innovation and new ideas" as the variable that most differentiates them from older Americans. More than three out of four Millennials (78%) say they are more likely to embrace innovation and new ideas, including 44% who say they are much more likely to do so -- more than 10 points higher than any other variable tested.

This is manifested in the thousands of young people who are creating the tools, law, vaccines, buildings, code, fashion, and food that will allow the planet to grow stronger while empowering those living their days on monthly income barely enough to buy a large coffee. Thousands are using bugs (and biochemistry) to beat back malaria, sending out tweets and Facebook updates to galvanize support for genocide victims, writing to amplify one girl's voice in the slums of Kibera, Kenya or Mumbai, India, building hospitals and homes and communities brimming with renewable energy, and installing green roofs for a new generation of American homes.

Despite the current economic frustration, Millenials understand that yesterday's jobs are ignorant to the reality-bending demands of zero emission cars and zero-waste shopping malls and zero-poverty communities.

While many lament the present, they have taken a moment to remember (and live) a story from the past. "Why the lightbulb?" a student seeking a clarity to his own career anxiety once asked Thomas Edison. "I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent." Billions of dollars and one hundred years later, Edison's answer captures brilliantly how the "lost generation" is embracing the future in the vice grip of this economic downturn.

They are not only making Edison proud -- they are making him envious. Check the research.