by Kaleb Warnock
If you’re twenty-something, chances are you’re selfish, self-obsessed and disinclined to keep abreast of contemporary politics, world news or any form of intelligent culture – according to many social commentators. Entitled the Me Me Me Generation, millennials, or those born in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, are perceived overwhelmingly negatively by bloggers, journalists and even academics.
“It isn’t enough to say these young people are uninterested in world realities … they are actively cut off from them,” says Mark Bauerlein, who authored, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.)
The title of the book speaks for itself.
“Each day the information [millennials] receive and the interaction they have must be so local or so superficial that the facts of government, foreign and domestic affairs… never slip through,” Bauerlein continues.
However, David Burstein, a 24-year-old millennial and director of a youth voter engagement organization is out to prove something of the millennial generation. Millennials are being perceived unduly negatively, he says, and contempt from elder generations could diminish what potential millennials have garnered with their numerous, albeit subtle, accomplishments.
“I started from the standpoint that I was frustrated with the way the story of young people is being told,” he said in an interview with Polemics. “What I think makes this generation really unique is that it’s the only generation that has come of age straddling the line before and after this paradigm shift into the fast-paced world in which change is the only constant.”
Burstein thinks that everything over the next 40 or 50 years will be an outgrowth of the moment in which this generation has come of age. Just like those born during the technological revolution of the 1890s, it will be a generation defined by an age of unprecedented technological advancement. According to Burstein, because of this shift into the information age in which the world economy, the dissemination of knowledge and politics are computerized, millennials are uniquely innovative in pursuing social change and rebuilding societal values.
“I really wanted to get inside my generation and tell a story that I thought would resonate with people,” Burstein said. “The best way to understand a generation is to actually talk to people, and that’s the real barometer of trying to understand us. Twenty years from now, people can look back and do their analysis and see what this time period really meant.”
Through his research and workshops he’s held in Europe and Asia, Burstein found out what most people already knew: millennials are approaching political action and their social agenda organically, using a unique combination of idealism and pragmatism – making full use of new technologies as a means toward mass empowerment.
“You’re not like bloomers who are ideologues and tend to listen only to those who share their ideology,” says historian Natalie Davis, whom Burstein cites in his book. “You are seen as being inclusive when it comes to race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. … You want to build coalitions… You are networked, and you tweet. And most importantly, for our time, you are problem-solvers.”
Contemporary issues are providing a bridge between millennials across the globe, as movements, ideas, and by extension, values now zip between peoples, facilitated through new technologies like social media. For example, he feels that much of the success of the Arab Spring protests was due to the advent of tools like Twitter, which, when used pragmatically, can be used as a large-scale organizational and communication platform.
“Tahrir square was driven by a number of things,” Burstein said. “One of the things I believe it was driven by was that young people had access to technology and the Internet to not just organize, but also to understand what life was like for young people in other parts of the world.”
However, it isn’t just social media that are pushing young people. Millennials are, by nature, socially responsible. Burstein cites Bernd Beetz, CEO of the global fragrance company, Coty, who says it’s essential to “keep your brand in the zeitgeist of this generation,” and realized that social responsibility, authenticity and transparency are essential in maintaining a customer base. Younger, ethically demanding consumers are much more critical of community leaders, politicians and corporations, and are holding them increasingly more responsible to addressing their feedback.
Young people are starting more NGOs and businesses by approaching issues through project-based solutions, and focusing more on values rather than financial success. In his book, Burstein says that young people want to work for more socially-responsible companies and cites a study conducted by Clark University that found that 85 percent of millennials were willing to take a lower-paying job where they felt they could have a social impact over a higher-paying job where they couldn’t.
Burstein’s favorite examples of altruistic young individuals included Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, the United States’ second largest philanthropist, and Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOM’S Shoes, a company donates one pair of shoes to a developing country for every pair of shoes purchased.
However, social entrepreneurship certainly isn’t limited to the United States. For example, Swedish inventor-entrepreneurs, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin have revolutionized bicycle travel through their invention of the Hövding airbag for cyclists. It’s their hope that they will not only revolutionize bicycle safety by encouraging people to wear their helmet, but see that bicycles will continue to replace the automobile.
“So much is happening in urban cycling,” Anna Haupt said in a promotional video. “Cars are so yesterday, bikes are the future.”
What began as a master’s thesis evolved into more than seven years of developing an invisible (and quite fashionable) bicycle safety system that is worn around the neck like a scarf. The Hövding is designed to inflate like an airbag around the wearer’s head in the event of the collision, utilizing sophisticated sensors and recording them on a black box so information can be gathered on accidents in which it is deployed.
“People wonder how girls could invent something this technical,” said Alstin, who is also proud to announce that they have raised more than $10 million in venture capital. “If people say it’s impossible, we have to prove them wrong.”
These young women are just one case among many others of which Burstein explores in detail in his book. Perhaps it may be too soon to write off this generation.
Overall, Burstein feels social and political issues are systemic issues, but in the long term, it is up to young people all over the world to step into more traditional leadership roles as well. Although many millennials are graduating laden with debt and into the worst job market for college graduates in decades, he is confident and encouraged by the optimism he has observed in his peers.
“I think one of the things I’ve been fascinated by, despite all of the economic depression this generation faces, the levels of optimism in people of this generation is really high.”
David D. Burstein
Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping our World
Beacon Press; 2013; 240 pages. $25.95;