When I was growing up, revolution was a noisy, messy and very public business. People like Abbie Hoffman and other members of ‘Woodstock Nation’ exhorted followers to get involved in street fights and mass protest, clash with the police at anti-war demonstrations, set fire to a community, set up guerrilla media like underground presses, or even risk charges of treason by handing over secret documents to the press, as analyst Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war.
Social activism demanded that you engage in guerrilla warfare (sometimes literally) against the status quo. Revolution was very much a smash-and-grab affair.
Fast-forward 40 years later, and you have a very different picture. The millennials are just as idealist, activist and committed, just as passionate about improving their world, but they’re going about it in a very different way.
For one thing, they’re more conservative and value-led, but the values they champion are older values – the values of their grandparents, like marriage. They believe in the older ways of finding a mate. They’re demanding integrity and transparency from business and governance, and accuracy in press reporting. They are convinced that they have stronger convictions than their parents, and are determined to live a life less about stuff and more about meaning and integrity.
But they’re not taking to the streets. As far as protest, according to the Youth Trends Report run by Voxburner, only 4 per cent of young people say they’d join in with outdoors demonstrations. As the impact report discovered, in the main, millennials want to avoid conflict, and actually disparage the idea of public protest.
In fact, they are completely redesigning what it means to be an activist. Instead of noisy demonstrations, they are engaging in bottom-up change, by embedding change-making into their daily lifestyles.
For the biggest difference of all, according to the 2016 Millennial Impact Report, which examined cause engagement during that presidential year, is that millennials ‘no longer primarily look to traditional institutions to effect societal change.’ Change isn’t going to come from the outside, in their view; they, as Gandhi so famously put it, need to be the change.
‘For millennials, taking consistent, positive actions, every day or week, is a lifestyle and a fundamental part of their identity,’ says Jean Case, who is CEO of the Case Foundation. ‘Members of this generation no longer see themselves as “activists” like their parents, but rather as everyday changemakers.’
Holding industry to account
To ensure this, they want to hold businesses accountable to values like ecology and fairness. According to another recent study, nearly half of all millennials believe that CEOs should walk the talk, speaking up about issues that are important to society and making sure that their company conforms to them.
And they’re beginning to vote with their wallets and their work choices. Some 51 per cent said they would more likely buy from a conscious CEO, and 44 per cent said that they’d be more loyal to a company where the CEO was willing to speak out about important activist issues. They’re taking to social media to influence business and even their own jobs.
'This generation is heavily purpose-driven and is already changing the game when it comes to how we work and where people want to work,' said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist of Weber Shandwick.
Besides volunteering in record numbers, no generation understands the power of digital tools and the internet more than this one. No generation has been able to design its own protest movement at the touch of a key.
Twenty-somethings now protest by signing online petitions, or shout and share their own causes on social media – chiefly Facebook.
In the Youth Trends Report, more than half surveyed said they share articles and opinions on current affairs, or engage in peer-to-peer fund-raising and crowd-sourcing, and this in itself can be highly effective.
One well touted example is the Ice-bucket Challenge to raise money for motor neuron disease. The entire campaign was simply to film and upload on Facebook individuals, including global celebrities, pouring a bucket of ice water or their heads and then nominating others to do the same.
Just a few weeks after its launch, the campaign had amassed some $115 million, which the ALS Association claimed had helped to fund scientists to identify a gene associated with the disease.
Another campaign taking off is Project Semicolon, a non-profit organization supporting people grappling with addiction, depression, self-harm or suicidal thoughts or actions. This movement has gripped young people around the world, who connecting with the charity and each other with via semi-colon tattoos, and they are uploading their own photos of them on social media.
Bottom line: this generation understands that you don’t need a picket line, a printing press or even a new President to foment change. All you need to do is to identify the world you want to live in, share it with your friends on social media, and watch how the game starts changing.