Millennials Just May Save the World

Passion about social impact is only one defining characteristic of this generation

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The story on millennials is already written. They’re entitled, self-centered, unrealistic and even lazy. And yet, at the same time, they are driving a not-so-silent revolution in the private sector towards making the world better. It is interesting to explore how a ‘selfish’ generation is creating a more ‘selfless’ world.

First, I would say they are kind of pissed off! Millennials, according to Pew Research are the first generation in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles.

They played by the same rules we did but many graduated from college during the Great Recession. Even those with advanced degrees were underpaid, and under- or unemployed for long periods of time. Some have had to use social services they never thought they would need.

Further, the institutions that had grounded society over the past few generations are showing signs of wear. They have seen church leaders trying to defend the indefensible. They have seen the government reduced to cynical gamesmanship on all sides. They watch the news talking about how vulnerable we are to bombs, shootings, hacking and theft. Teachers, coaches, counselors, and doctors are continually on trial for betraying trust and confidence.

It’s no wonder that they are looking out for themselves.

And yet, there are two factors that are driving positive outcomes. First, despite this backdrop, millennials have the benefit of youth and optimism. Whether right or wrong, they have always held the belief that they can do anything, and they are more optimistic than the rest of us.

The digital tools that are now in the hands of every millennial have lowered the barriers to information and individual purchasing power. Transparency is all over the place, and deciding what you want to do with your money is easier than ever.

This optimism and access to digital tools plus the irreverence for institutions that have guided the last generations, leads to the trends we all see.

As we all know, Cone Communications says that 64% of millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work. That same number will refuse a job if a company doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility values.

As consumers, they are just as demanding. Eighty-seven percent will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about, and 76% will refuse to purchase a company’s products or services upon learning it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.

But that isn’t enough.

At the same time, they are taking on issues directly and creating companies and enterprises that have social issues at the heart of their missions; and, there are examples all over the place.

Rachel Sumekh founded Swipe Out Hunger to aid food insecure college students by letting others donate meals to their peers. DonorsChoose was founded by Charles Best, a teacher who wanted to make it easier for his colleagues to afford their classroom supplies. A pair of millennials in the healthcare sector decided that the best way to support low-income families that needed help paying their children’s medical bills was to bring volunteers trained in confusing government paperwork directly into pediatricians’ waiting rooms — thus, StreetCred was born. They’re just the tip of the iceberg.

The hand wringing about this new generation should slow down. They inherited a much different world than their predecessors, and are not waiting around for them to sort it out. They are doing it themselves and making us all do it with them.

Thank goodness.

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