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Helmets On, Social Citizens on the Rise

By Tom Watson on May 8, 2008No Comment

Helmets On by Allison Fine

If people like Friedman don’t know where to look and how to hear it, that doesn’t mean youth today aren’t active citizens. Millennials are loud, fractious, and passionate, and their activist efforts are changing the world in important and profound ways.

There is a popular picture of young people today: bike helmets and seat belt, firmly strapped in place; a pampered and protected generation that has been overfed, oversexed, and overindulged. This is partly true, but it’s far from the whole story. “Social Citizens(beta) is a paper I wrote that was commissioned by The Case Foundation. Based on a literature review and thirty interviews with key influentials and Millennial activists, I discovered that Millennials are not only passionate and active for causes, they are redefining what it means to be a citizen in this new century, hence the term Social Citizens. 

As the largest living generation of Americans, Millennials are using their passion for causes and their digital savvy to change the world in very practical ways; one purchase, one house built or mile walked at a time. Millennials are hands-on “experience seekers.” They want to experience change, to touch and feel it, and they want a menu of options for acting now and seeing results in real time for real people.

However, their outlook and actions raise significant questions about how they will shape the world and what that means for nonprofit organizations and government.  The key questions for Millennials and the field of activism can be summarized as follows (they are elaborated more fully in the report:

  • Are “bubble cultures” necessary, important or escapable?  Most young people are spending a significant amount of their social lives on social networks online.  These invariably attract like-minded people to one another.  Will complex social problems ever be solved within these bubbles, or do we have to find ways to break out of them to be successful?
  • What does it mean for public policy that Millennials are moved by causes but live their lives at a great distance from government?   They are unschooled in the role of government in society and this may have implications for what we, as a society, decide in terms of public policy in the decades ahead.
  • What does it mean for nonprofit organizations when Millennials can create their own causes, overnight, for free using new social media tools. There are some people who would argue that the age of organizations dedicated to causes is over; I don’t agree with that but the role of organizations needs to change.  How they change is the question.

Millennials are doing more than pinging and poking and sharing information about causes. They are radically altering the very notion of what it means to be an active citizen in the process, and that’s why we’re calling them Social Citizens. And, you may have noticed that there is a “beta” on the end of Social Citizens in the title of the paper. This is a reminder that this field of youth activism is changing at breakneck pace. American humorist James Thurber said, “It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.” And certainly, in this case, we know that there are lots and lots of questions without answers yet — and this is fantastic news to folks like me and my colleagues at the Case Foundation who like having conversations with other people who share our interest in getting more people actively engaged in trying to improve our world. Please join the ongoing discussion at the Social Citizens blog.

About the Paper

“Social Citizens(beta) can be downloaded at the Case Foundation website. A widget for the paper is also available on the Social Citizens site.

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