When he was only 24-years-old, Millennial David Burstein wrote Fast Future about Americans born from 1980 to 1994, having spent six years interviewing hundreds of his peers. He got started in activism as a filmmaker of Generation18 that was used to encourage young voters to register in 2008. He concluded that Millennials are practical idealists and activists. Unlike the Boomers, they’re not ideologues, revolutionaries, or anti-authority. He traces his generation’s patient pragmatism to realism learned from growing up in an era when rapid change is the only constant, when institutions and authority are collapsing and disaster follows disaster—environmental and social. Enabled by their use of technology and free social media (over half of them add online content every week) they’ve already made significant change. “We’ve toppled dictators, helped elect a president, created social networks that have connected the world, forced businesses to adopt a social agenda broader than profit—and all before most of us have turned thirty.”[i]
Burstein believes Millenials have a “passion for making a difference” as by building large online activist organizations such as Facebook’s Causes as the larges online activist platform with over 100 million users, Mobilize.org, Ourtime.org, and DoSomething.org. The latter claims to be the largest US nonprofit for young people and social change with 1,425,974 million members who “kick ass on causes they care about” such as bullying or homelessness. Millennials use technology for relief work such as raising money for Haiti through texting and cell phone donations. (He adds that they also bought more books than other generation in 2011.)
Most Millennials (88% according to a Pew survey) believe they should and can change the world. Because of high youth unemployment, they’ve become social entrepreneurs who create their own jobs with a social conscience: Burstein reports almost a third of all US entrepreneurs are Millennials. As effective changemakers, they’ve generated “cultural shifts” in the workplace with less hierarchy, more access to executives, dialogue with customers, insistence on a social responsibility policy, and a more enjoyable work environment.
Wanting to hear from a Millennial about these charges of apathy, narcissism, anxiety and depression, I talked with David Burstein, author of Fast Future. He agrees alarmists have a loud voice and books like The Dumbest Generation become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He notes you can conduct research to tell you what you want. He pointed out that narcissism is not unique to this generation and Boomers in the 60s were known for “free love” and sexual liberation. Popular culture today is about self-confidence and self-branding, a culture of self-empowerment, which has resulted in young people becoming leaders in the present, not just future leaders as they get older. Every generation has partyiers, it doesn’t matter if there are more of them, what counts is the ability of an individual to influence many others. What does it matter if they’re doing activism and drinking?
If you look at all the studies of Millennials, far more are socially engaged. If you scan all the analysis of what they want in employer relationships, business, and politics, the picture is pretty clear. Social-mindedness has a bigger footprint and individuals have more impact through access to theirs peers. The people Burstein went to high school with can read about Fast Future and are aware of what he’s doing and his issues. He gets messages on Facebook even from students he knew in middle school that are inspired by his activism. Burnstein says people become ambassadors and carry their message forward. The fact that Millennials have introduced change before they turned 30, suggests their long-term impact on social awareness. Also, many volunteer and give money to charities, which suggests they’ll continue with their giving habits.
About mental illness, Burstein asks where do we draw the line between mental illness and stress in an era of increasing stress? Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, only if it is managed poorly. If you look at a Harris poll conducted for The American Psychological Association study of generations, Millennials are more stressed than older generations, with an average of 5.4 self-report on a stress scale from 1 to 10, compared to 4.9 for older respondents to the poll.[i] Their main sources of stress are work (76%), money (73%) and relationships (59%). They are more likely to be told by a health care provider that they have depression (14%) or an anxiety disorder 12%). Burstein says Millennials have to figure out how to find a job and make money, and be happy, but we have the ability to adapt. Why are so many optimistic about the long term? We’re trying to make something out this time in our 20s, not just getting married, but having new experiences.
I also asked David Burstein about the difference between Generations Y and Z. He thinks the big difference is his generation experienced both pre-digital and digital technology: The guiding principle for Millennials is they straddled the line. They know what it’s like to do a research project in the library but intuitively used Twitter and other social media to create political change like the Arab Spring. In contrast, Gen Z knows nothing but digital technology, as illustrated in a popular YouTube video showing a one-year-old girl trying to make a magazine cover move like an iPad.[i] Gen Z could know far more growing up with educational games on their iPhone, but Burstein questions if this familiarity with technology and instant culture will allow them to navigate the world better. “If you’re not grounded in real world experiences, it’s harder to see the problems; they have more instant culture without first being grounded in the pre-internet and pre Facebook world.” Whereas Millennials are often entrepreneurs due to coming of age in a recession, “my feeling is Gen Z will be less entrepreneurial. Also, the biggest impact is coming to technology fully formed rather than helping to shape it.” Their parents are Gen X, characterized as being rather apathetic, not as focused on parenting as Baby Boomers who raised Millennials. He thinks Gen X parents are so comfortable with social media they aren’t as protective about privacy online, and setting up ground rules, while Millennial parents are still figuring it out.