Brilliant Disguise

Maligning the character of a rising generation seems to be an ingrained proposition for the one that preceded it. Perhaps this is no more the case than with the incessant labeling and lamenting about the parade of young people passing by, from Boomers and Gen Xers to Millennials and beyond.

A case in point can be found in the words of a high school senior from Waterman, Illinois, published 26 years ago by Newsweek. In his essay "Against All Odds, I'm Just Fine," then 18-year-old Brad Wackerlin wrote, "What troubled times the American teenager lives in! Ads for Nike shoes urge us to 'Just do it!' while the White House tells us to 'Just say no.' The baby boomers have watched their babies grow into teens and history has repeated itself ... Once again the generation gap has widened and the adults have finally remembered to remember that teenagers are just no good ..."

With tongue planted firmly in check, Wackerlin went on to specifics, offering up, "If what is being printed in the newspapers, viewed on television and repeated by adults is correct, it is against all odds that I am able to write this article. Adults say the average teenager can't write complete sentences and has trouble spelling big words. Their surveys report that I can't find Canada on a map. According to their statistics, my favorite hobbies are sexual intercourse and recreational drug use. It's amazing that I've found time to write this; from what they say, my time is spent committing violent crimes or just hanging out with a gang. In fact, it is even more amazing that I'm here at all, when you consider that the music I listen to is supposedly 'warping' my mind and influencing me to commit suicide."

Sarcasm as disclaimer notwithstanding, today's American adolescents and emerging adults face almost unprecedented challenges related to academic achievement, illicit drug use, sexually transmitted diseases, violence and, yes, even suicide. On some issues, the word "epidemic" springs to mind.

Yet what also may be epidemic is a cultural cruelty of cognitive misdirection, emphasizing the negative at the expense of the positive, virtually scrubbing away any vestiges of good work being done well. Or could it be that modern-day youth themselves are simply masquerading as what we tell them they are, brilliantly disguising the softer side of "bad"?

In a 2015 Twitter chat, Paul Greenberg, CEO of Nylon Media, commented on the social awareness of teens and young adults, stating that almost 40 percent of Generation Y/Millennials (between ages 18 to 34 last year) and 60 percent of Generation Z want to have an impact on the world.

Where's the proof?

Youth Service America reports that, depending on how you do the math, as many as 55 percent of young people ages 12-18 participate in volunteer activities. Recognizing the collective desire of young people to help, the national organization DoSomething.org advocates for "any cause, anytime, anywhere," noting 5,246,763 members worldwide and engaging them in volunteer campaigns focused on issues including the environment, discrimination, poverty, "And everything else ..."

Of course corporate America plays a role as well by incentivizing employees into civic-minded service - including the Millennials now flooding the workforce. Last year, Fortune magazine noted "a spirit of philanthropy" among many of its 100 Best Companies to Work For, "including quite a few that make sure workers who take initiative are treated well." Specifically, the magazine called out Deloitte, Novo Nordisk, NuStar Energy, PCL Construction, Autodesk, Salesforce, NetApp, Stryker, Cadence and VMWare.

Other companies, such as Allstate Insurance Company, empower both employees and youth. For example, through its Bring Out the Good Month and Helping Hands in the Community programs, Allstate says it encourages "an environment that creates community advocates: employees, agency owners and other champions who become inspired by compelling opportunities to give back."

On the youth side of the ledger, Allstate and The Allstate Foundation partner with WE Day to empower young people to create change in their communities and the world. Together, through WE Day's yearlong educational program, WE Schools, they provide young people with "the tools to build character, achieve more at school and become better citizens through volunteer activities." That important work is recognized annually through WE Day events across the globe.

Perhaps more to the point, the company's They Say Project points out the disparity between commonly held perceptions of young people as a drag on society and the reality of the same young people sustaining and advancing that same society. It encourages youth to take to social media to show how they're so much more than what #theysay.

When attached to a national or global business or organization, the civic engagement of Millennials and Gen Zers is easy to see and track. What may be more difficult to quantify is the work of individuals who strike out on their own to volunteer or to even create new activities and organizations that promote meaningful social change. For them, philanthropist Lauren Bush Lauren offered in TIME magazine some insights on how make a maximum impact. They included marrying one's skill set and expertise with something of personal significance.

Makes sense. And, here, stories are more powerful than statistics.

First up is the story of Jared Aaronson. A native of southern Connecticut, Jared was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma during his sophomore year at the College of Charleston. Eschewing calls to return home for treatment, Aaronson instead continued his studies while undergoing chemotherapy at the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. Looking back, Aaronson recently told the Charleston City Paper, "My experience was a walk in the park compared to so many other people." He continued, "Chemotherapy sucked, but I knew my chances were good. I realized it wasn't just me suffering, it was all of us - my family and friends suffered with me."

Indeed, with his support structure intact, Aaronson survived six months of treatment and found, along the way, that his innate sense of positivity and passion for all things music could unite in a new initiative to benefit others. In December 2015, he began to lay the groundwork for a national "audio-therapy tour" to bring music, smiles and hope to cancer patients - and those who work to heal them - across the country. Through his GoFundMe campaign, Aaronson has raised $13,500 toward his $16,000 goal. He'll hit the road with friend Paul Schmidt - a fellow disc jockey and videographer - in September 2016.

Of his upcoming mission, Aaronson told me, "If I can make one person's day a little easier at each stop, it will be worth everything. The support I've seen already has been incredible and it is developing more every day. I'm beyond excited."

Halfway across the country, Chicagoan Genevieve Liu will soon commemorate the fourth anniversary of her father's horrible - if heroic - death. Dr. Donald C. Liu, a prominent pediatric surgeon, drowned while saving two boys in Lake Michigan. Though surrounded by family and friends in the close-knit community of Hyde Park, Liu told me, she felt immensely lonely until she was introduced to a classmate who had lost her mom. It was then, she said, that she saw the first sign of light that would eventually (and quickly) inspire her to found an online nonprofit resource for other young people suffering under similar circumstances.

In an interview for the Chicago Tribune, Liu explained, "After losing my dad, I questioned whether I was still going to be able to live the life I felt like I was supposed to live, whether I could accomplish the same things. I felt all of these new responsibilities." Yet amid so many questions, Liu knew one thing for sure: she wanted to help others. That desire culminated in her founding the Donald C. Liu SLAP'D (Surviving Life After a Parent Dies) Foundation, a charity that "provides support and resources to young people who are coping with the death of a parent."

Of SLAP'D, she told the Tribune, "The mission is to let a lot of people who've lost a parent know they're not alone and to gain strength from each other."

Now a high school junior, Liu, a student member of the national advisory board at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), spoke to me about the value of giving something back - or perhaps paying something forward. She stated "Through SLAP'D I hope to empower individuals, especially those who are grieving, to find one another and to achieve a sense of hope through connection."

For sure, Jared and Genevieve represent millions of like-minded youth trying to change the world. All while brilliantly disguised as just another generation (or two) that really couldn't care less.