Millennials are often portrayed as apathetic, disinterested, tuned out and selfish. None of those adjectives describe the Millennials I’ve been privileged to meet and work with.
Fresh from Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) 2013, my father and I just spent the weekend with more than 1,000 college and university students — Millennials — from around the world at Washington University in St. Louis. Every student who attended made what we at CGI U call ‘commitments’ — specific pledges to tackle a specific challenge, whether on their campus or a continent away. Attendees came from more than 300 colleges and universities, all 50 states and over 75 countries and their commitments ranged across equally diverse areas, including education, climate change, gender inequality, poverty alleviation and public health. CGI U left me both exhilarated and exhausted, but above all, inspired. I left St. Louis incredibly optimistic about our future.
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It’s not that the young people I met aren’t aware of the negative stereotypes of them out there. Some of the critiques against them do contain insight. But Millennials are actually remixing their generation’s vices into virtues that are informing their ambitions, their work and helping make the world a better place. Here’s how:
1. They’re All about the Money
It’s a widely-held belief that Millennials are obsessed with money. And it’s also wildly true. Just don’t mistake it for a fixation with getting rich. After all, a survey of university graduates by consulting firm PwC shows that flexible hours and job development trump cash in their ideal workplace. The young people I met and listened to at CGI U were focused on money in the sense of getting back to real growth in the developed world, ensuring that prosperity is more widely shared in the developed and developing world, and for the United States, fixing our long-term fiscal challenges (there was even a fierce competition to see which students led the best campaigns to raise Millennials’ awareness of the soaring national debt).
Take CGI U participant Derrius Quarles. He grew up in the foster care system on the South Side of Chicago, but managed to graduate from high school with a million dollars in scholarship offers. As a student at Morehouse College, Derrius set up Million Dollar Scholar to connect traditionally marginalized Millennials with funds for college, in addition to making a CGI U commitment to boost financial literacy in young people (meaning people his age and even younger!). Through Million Dollar Scholar, students have received over $950,000 in scholarships and grants to date. Derrius is focused on money because he knows, whether fair or not, it is often necessary to help unlock opportunity.
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2. They’re Mobile Maniacs
Millennials regularly draw ire for their cell phone usage. They’re mobile natives, having come of age when landlines were well on their way out and payphones had gone the way of dinosaurs. Because of their native fluency, Millennials recognize mobile phones can do a whole lot more than make calls, enable texting between friends or tweeting.
In fact, three Washington University in St. Louis students are leveraging SMS technology to support survivors of gender-based violence in South Africa. Emily Santos, Krupa Desai and Henry Osman made a commitment at CGI U 2013 to develop the KHE Project, a text-message-based hotline that connects rape and sexual assault survivors with critical resources while preserving their anonymity.
Smart phones can also reconnect and keep track of refugees on a whole different continent. Duke student Patrick Oathout came to CGI U in 2012 and committed to create Uhuru Mobile, a free mobile app that allows users in Jordanian refugee camps to communicate with aid workers and each other in local languages.
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3. They’re Social Media-Obsessed
Caricatured as navel-gazers, Millennials are said to live for their ‘likes’ and status updates. But the young people I know often leverage social media in selfless ways.
At CGI U 2012, Moussa Hassoun of Bentley College committed to promote LGBT discourse in the Arab diaspora with the aid of online forums, Twitter and other virtual platforms. At CGI U 2013, Brown University student Drew Heckman committed to expanding the accessibility of his grassroots organization, Queer Nebraska Youth Networks, by creating a website that digitally maps, in a mobile-friendly way, queer-friendly opportunities and events throughout the socially conservative Cornhusker State. These are just two of the Millennials all over the world engaging web 2.0 for society’s benefit rather than self-indulgence.
4. They’re Awfully Impatient
My husband and I frequently reflect on the adage that ‘patience is a virtue but impatience gets things done.’ Sometimes, Millennials get grief for their impatience, for not waiting their turn, not understanding that sometimes progress takes time. That’s true — sometimes progress does take time, but often progress has been too long in coming, from advancing women’s rights around the world to ameliorating the continued high death rates of young children of age-old challenges like diarrhea or malaria. That’s why, in full disclosure, I find the Millennials’ impatience so exciting. It’s urgency not arrogance that drives their impatience, their frustration with the status quo. They understand that these are urgent times, and that access to higher education, gender-based violence, climate change and equal rights for all, regardless of sex or sexual orientation, country of residence or country of origin are all areas of urgent concern. Millennials are eager to get started in addressing global challenges long before they line up to walk across the stage to get their college diploma. While some call that impatient, I call that perfect. The world can’t afford for them to wait.
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