09/12/2011 02:20 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2011

Moved to Action

In my travels around the world, I've (over)heard a lot of ways for people to say they've reached a point of no return with their frustration, feeling so full of stress that they're stirred from passive acceptance to real action. Some cultures say it's "the drop that makes the jar overflow." Others, "the straw that broke the camel's back." And the buzziest now: "the tipping point." (#theyreasmadashellandtheyrenotgoingtotakeitanymore)

Regardless of which cliché you use, there's no arguing that we're seeing more and more jars that runneth over, more camels that need good chiropractors.

Take the world events happening at the time of our publication of a One Young World white paper called "Beyond the Long Spring of Dissent." Just one week after we finished it in July, Britain was shaken by riots. And by the time we published it in August, rebels in Libya had ended the 42-year reign of Muammar Gaddafi. (#tothecoreoftripoli)

The paper serves as a temperature check on the millennial generation, which is facing increasing obstacles -- inheriting difficulties ranging from massive public debts and stagnant economies to high unemployment figures and growing environmental concerns -- and challenging the current global situation. It follows research conducted by YouGovStone on behalf of the #OYW2011 global youth leadership summit and was based on more than 9,000 interviews with young people aged 20 to 29 from 21 countries on important global issues. Among the findings from the U.S. survey:

  • A mere 29 percent of American youth agree with the statement "I feel very positive about my country's future," compared with a global average of 45 percent.
  • But 77 percent agree that "The Internet has opened up greater business prospects for people my age." (Nevertheless, half of American survey respondents report concern for their online privacy with the use of such sites as Facebook.)
  • Only 12 percent think the world's leaders are moving at the right speed to achieve effective agreements on combating climate change; 65 percent of respondents in China think so.

Before I left for One Young World in Zurich, which recently concluded, this is among what I read from older people about why a sea-change of dissent is happening across the planet:

  • Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times: "Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and angered by corruption."
  • And in a Vanity Fair piece called "Of the 1 %, by the 1 %, for the 1 %," Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz reflected on the uprisings in the Middle East in particular:

    "America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling."

    There simply are no anger management classes for this kind of discontent.

As someone who has always studied consumer behavior, I can put this collective anger through the lens of perception and see how behavior is influenced by not just circumstance but also by other humans in this world gone 24/7/365 in terms of communications.

With social media giving a digital soapbox to all, objectionable behavior is vented about and talked about and ultimately shared, and that's where perceptions about worldview come into play. People take their cues from each other, especially from influential others. It's known as "social norming," and it's all the rage from Main Street to Wall Street -- and it's not going anywhere, regardless of whether the rich bail us out or not.

As a trendspotter and brand steward, I'm seeing growing numbers of people in the media (and in private life) wondering out loud whether the good old American dream has turned into a nightmare. They're wondering whether "the system" is rigged against the little guy or, as the Pew Research Center put it: "Most [Americans] see government policies as helping banks, corporations and wealthy people while doing very little for the middle class and small business." To me, this kind of anger has been bubbling for years, but the pressure cooker that is modern life has finally exploded, and now we are trying to figure out (loudly) how to clean up the mess.

In the mix are thoughts from die-hard opponents of free-market capitalism, such as Naomi Klein and Michael Moore; their critical views are well known to the relative minority who agree with them and ignored by the majority who dismiss them as lefty loosies. Then we have billionaires such as Warren Buffett questioning the status quo, coupled with the CEO of global investment giant PIMCO, Mohamed El-Erian, warning of the dangers of failing to promote social justice. Writing on the Reuters blog, he said: "It is not just about fairness; the rich have genuine self-interest in reversing the country's economic malaise and the worsening of income and wealth inequalities." Citing the actions of Buffett and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and others like them, he observes: "They know that national prosperity cannot, and should not, be sustained without social justice."

And that's also where the optimism and hope (but realism) of One Young World comes in. Young delegates were inspired by a distinguished panel of counselors (Desmond Tutu, Bob Geldof, Jamie Oliver, Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and many others) who supported them as they discussed a range of challenging global issues, from leadership and interfaith dialogue to the role of global business and changing media, with a view to taking actionable resolutions for change. A few of the delegates (aged 15 to 25) launched a worldwide #WakeUpCall social media campaign at the closing ceremony. They want to get the planet's political and business leaders to wake up, stop talking and take action on some of the most pressing issues we're all facing today.

Good times or bad, things are getting to the point where something has to give. As Sam Cooke once said, "A change is gonna come." And like it or not, that change is here. Every influential questioning voice gets picked up, echoing and amplifying dissent through social media. The era of quietly accepting in solitude the decisions of lawmakers and policyholders is over, and today's global citizens are speaking loud, and decidedly clear, regardless of what side of the ideological fence they're on.

Corporations and brands and public figures need to be aware that they are communicating with ordinary people who are beginning to think that they're competing in a game that is rigged, and as a result they are playing defense daily. They're less interested in the next shiny, high-tech piece of entertainment and most interested in simply surviving on this unsteady playing field.

It should be an interesting season, with the next election looming. Start thinking of some new clichés now. (#game on)