Last November, as people struggled to understand the unexpected outcome of the American election, some found solace in the fact that if you filter the election map for those aged 18-35, the US turns blue. Still, only roughly 50 percent of eligible young voters went to the polls (well below the expected turnout of 58 percent) and even amongst those who did, 8 percent voted for third-party candidates.
Does this imply that millennials are less interested or will be less involved in politics and activism? Not truly, but those words do need to be examined a little more closely.
People do not stop caring about issues that affect the world around them – no matter how selfish the media might portray the generation to be. In fact, one of the positive byproducts of millennials’ belief in their own “specialness” is a sense of agency. Because millennials have been raised to have the highest expectations of themselves, have been told time and again they are special and they can do whatever they want (and whether this is good or not is a discussion for another time), they have strong sense of agency and do in fact try to change their world.
Arguably, one of the hallmarks of our generation is a new version of “armchair activism”, which manifests itself in the sharing of articles and discussions with like-minded friends on social media. We applaud Jimmy Kimmel for talking about access to healthcare and denounce Pepsi advertisements that don’t do justice to significant political movements from the confines of our smartphones. There are both merits and drawbacks to this awareness, as it comes with a deep-seated conviction in your own beliefs without engaging the other. Coupled with a sense of agency though, I believe that it has created a generation that is more willing to follow through upon their beliefs.
We may not self-identify as activists, because often elicits the image of a picketing protester. But many millennials are more likely to choose careers that match our passions – whether it is sustainability, feminism, healthcare, education, or something else. For many people, activism isn’t a “hobby” or volunteer activity, but rather it’s their life. The change doesn’t have to be dramatic, but can be a simple choice like switching from investment banking to impact investing. From glancing over a global brick-and-mortar retailer because you’re more interested in sustainable fashion.
Personally, my purpose is “impact” and my chosen means to get there is bettering education. How can I spend my life making school more fulfilling, more practical, and more equitable for all children? My career trajectory is motivated by the inequity rife across all nations and a belief that I have a role to play in changing the status quo.
It would be foolish to believe that I am representative of the millions in my generation, or that my generalizations carry any more merit than the sensationalized media portrayals of the lazy millennials seeking instant gratification. I don’t know whether our generation is more or less likely to be politically involved, motivated, or activist compared to previous generations. But I do think that definitions evolve with time, and as the world around us changes, so should the connotations associated with language. For many millennials, activism is no longer an “activity”, but rather a life-long choice that seeks to mesh together a fulfilling career and meaningful life.