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Voices / Column

Millennials practice social consciousness

The last generation of the 20th century is making its mark with a new and refreshing set of personal and professional values

Saxtons River

Not long ago, I participated in an event that attracted a good number of young women who are of the generation known as the Millennials.

Demographers use this term (or the term “Generation Y”) when referring to the children of baby boomers, adults in their late 30s and early 40s. There are about 80 million of them in the U.S., and they represent the last generation born in the 20th century. Life for them has never existed without the Internet; they are totally tech-savvy.

They’re also, it can be argued, socially conscious.

Millennials care about equity, social justice, poverty, peace, the environment, and other issues of our time. They seem more likely than the generation who precedes them to invest in social capital, a concept that Robert Putnam wrote about in his bestseller Bowling Alone, which analyzes the importance of — and decline in — valuable networks that help create beneficial changes in society.

Whether it’s job networking, neighborhood watches, social capital, collective-action matters, or programs to feed the hungry, it increasingly matters to Millennials.

So does having meaningful work, a sense of community, and an openness to new ideas and experiences.

* * *

The women I met at the event were beginning their fourth decade. Each of them held a senior, lucrative position within their organizations and in their chosen fields, from medicine to marketing.

Yet each of them was poised to forfeit the financial security and comfort zone of their respective workplaces in order to do something more meaningful professionally.

Shortly after meeting those wonderful, risk-taking young women, I read a piece in The New York Times which also gave me hope for the future because of our collective progeny.

It was about Jewish students at Swarthmore College who decided that their Hillel — the Jewish student group on many college campuses — would be the first “Open Hillel” in the country.

This decision meant that they would no longer abide by national Hillel guidelines that prohibit chapters from certain actions they deem to be not fully supportive of Israel. Such actions might include inviting certain speakers, showing a film about Palestinians, or having a discussion with a Palestinian student group (or a left-leaning Jewish group, for that matter).

“All are welcome to walk through our doors,” Swarthmore students proclaimed. If I were a parent of one of those kids, I’d be mighty proud.

* * *

Millennials are social activists and social entrepreneurs. Take the work of actress and filmmaker Kamala Lopez and her colleague Gini Sikes. They are producing Equal Means Equal, a documentary about women’s equality, as part of the ERA Education Project that Lopez founded.

Equal Means Equal provides a forum for the voices of American women to be heard on a national stage,” Lopez says.

The film, using archival footage and visual arts, highlights women from across the country as they talk about their lives and how they want them to change, with topics such as the gender pay gap, pregnancy discrimination, immigration, religion, and violence among the subjects discussed.

Kiva co-founders Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley exemplify Millennial social entrepreneurs. A nonprofit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty, Kiva leverages the Internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions so that individuals can lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.

Since it was founded in 2005, more than a million people have become Kiva lenders, providing $500 million in loans to small-scale businesses in the world’s poorest countries. More than 99 percent of those loans are paid back, encouraging donors to reinvest.

“We envision a world where all people — even in the most remote areas of the globe — hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others,” Kiva writes on its website.

Millennials were among the leaders of the Occupy Movement, which — regardless of its flaws — is aimed at social and economic equality.

And unlike their Boomer parents, Millennials want a healthy balance between work and family life. They are more likely to achieve gender equality on the home front and to comfortably reach across the divides of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

* * *

Don’t get me wrong: Millennials are viewed in some quarters as self-centered, lazy, job-hopping, neurotic narcissists with a huge sense of entitlement and a diminished ability to make commitments. I’ve actually met a few who might fit some of those descriptions.

But I know of or have engaged with enough people in this age group to believe that they offer a good deal of hope for the future of the planet.

And that gives my slightly pre-Boomer heart a great deal of comfort.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #280 (Wednesday, November 12, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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