Millennials: Harnessing the New Wave of Activism and Social Awareness

The truth is that civic engagement and activism don’t look like what they used to look like. And millennials are the ones shaping what our country will look like in the future.

Let’s start with the difficult facts: Millennials are disillusioned. Only 50 percent of millennials voted in the 2012 presidential election, and this statistic has been used as evidence that this generation—those of us born between about 1982 and 2002—is apathetic.

But this is a gross oversimplification. While 43 percent of millennials say Washington is broken and one-half identify as Independent rather than as one of the two major parties, seven out of 10 millennials identify as activists. And that is huge.

The truth is that civic engagement and activism don’t look like what they used to look like. And millennials are the ones shaping what our country will look like in the future.

In order to understand how to engage with millennials and how to further your cause with this passionate generation, you must understand our perspective.

Yes, it is true that protests are less prominent with our generation than with others. But that’s in part because these events are often not given the social context we need to understand them and believe that they will make a difference.

And yes, we may not donate in the volumes that other generations do. But that’s because we are buried in student loan debt and/or making minimum wage and trying to figure out how to pull ourselves into a better financial life.

Millennials see the system for its pieces and have moved outside of the political realm to try to enact change. That is not to say we can’t be engaged on political issues, but it is best to approach us with issues that we can put our passion into and create a real change. Here are a few things to try.

  • Hire someone that speaks millennial: Everyone knows that millennials are the internet generation and, therefore, have an understanding of the web like none other. We watched it become the behemoth that it is, learning HTML to create websites for our favorite bands and exploring the early chat rooms to meet people from all over the world. Really what this boils down to is that millennials want to be able to engage with the internet in a meaningful way, and we can easily sniff out inauthenticity. So if you’re working to engage this generation, make sure this generation is represented within your organization. It’s as simple as that. No one else will be able to make headway as quickly or effectively.
  • Create great content: The key to engaging with millennials is to have great content. If you can master the type of content that gets to this generation (see the previous bullet), then we will like, share and comment on what you are posting as a first step in your ladder of engagement.
  • Pay close attention to the ladder of engagement: This is critically important for millennials. We are all busy people, but the stress and pace of American life is hitting millennials even harder than previous generations. So it’s true that we just don’t have time to stop and read every newsletter that comes our way from an organization that is doing good work. So show us a clear pathway to becoming more involved—from encouraging us to view your site, to liking you on social media to sharing your content. Once our engagement is established, it could build to being an evangelist for your excellent content, making a couple of calls, turning out to an event, and donating—we will get there, because we will recognize that you know how to create change.
  • Don’t tell us, guide us: A key characteristic of millennials is that we don’t trust authority. We are skeptical of hierarchy. So telling us exactly how something is can sometimes backfire. But if you give us the tools to make our own decisions, customize our messages to be in our own voice and help us to create our own campaigns, you will succeed. Take advantage of our rebellion and passion and shape your campaigns in a way that allows personal voice to come through. There are hundreds of Care2 petitions created by the younger generation, like Valerie, who demanded better mental-health services from her university, or Madi, who insisted that Brigham Young University do better to address sexual assault. By allowing individuals to drive these movements and take control (with our support and guidance), they were that much more authentic and powerful.
  • Share your successes and tout your ability to work around the system: If there’s one thing millennials have, it’s high standards, and this can be tricky. It’s part of why we’re so disillusioned, but it’s also part of what makes us change-makers. But what might be surprising is that most of us believe that corporations can be a force for good, and we expect a lot from businesses and nonprofits. So when you do something well, tout it. Shout it from the rooftops. We want to see that something is working, and sometimes that’s the kick we need to really get involved.

I don’t buy the idea that millennials are disengaged and lazy. In fact, I resent that idea. Our activism is built into our DNA—because of the great work of previous generations, we recycle regularly and try to lead green lives, we use solar chargers, produce less trash and understand the implications of our actions on the planet. Many of us also participate in silent boycotts of companies that we see as doing something harmful.

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