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Understanding Youth: Three Key Differentiators

By whatever name they’re called—Generation Next, Gen Y, echo boomers, millennials—today’s youth are a generation like no other. They are true digital natives, born into a world of bits and bytes, of ever-improving technologies and rapidly proliferating modes of communication and commerce. In much of the world, they are more multicultural than any previous generation. To them, globalization and unprecedented access to other people and information is simply the norm.

In my work with millennials—through the Havas companies and the One Young World (OYW) youth forum—I have come to admire a generation marked by seemingly limitless drive and potential. What really sets them apart, in my view, is their approach to education, their ability to influence, and their capacity to effect positive social change.

They Are Self-Educators, Designing Their Own Life Curricula
The digital revolution has given today’s youth entree to a virtually limitless repository of knowledge, ideas, and information. Whereas education used to be about access to quality teachers and elite academic institutions, now anyone with an Internet connection and sufficient interest can learn whatever they want, whenever they want, wherever they want. The Pew Research Center says the millennials are on track to become the most educated generation in history. Partly this has to do with record-high levels of enrollment in college and graduate schools, but it is also because of the vast levels of informal learning taking place online every day. From opinion blogs to government research sites, from learning tools such as to discussion forums and media archives, the Web is a place of boundless intelligence and resources.

Writing in Fast Company, Chuck Salter described search site Google’s view that information is “a natural resource, one that should be mined and refined and sorted and universally distributed. Information is a necessity, like clean water.” Millennials are lapping it up. Last fall, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel announced a grant program to encourage kids to “stop out of school” and start their own businesses after high school rather than going on to college. In his view, young entrepreneurs have all the tools they need to come up with and implement ideas of great social and economic value. Formalized education is seen as just getting in the way.

Their Influence Is Far-Reaching
When Euro RSCG Worldwide asked millennials in five markets (China, France, India, United Kingdom, United States) what the biggest differentiator was between them and earlier generations, a plurality cited the fact that their generation is “more digital.” Their use of—and comfort with—digital technology and especially social media gives today’s youth the capacity to reach more people and sway more opinions, whether in regard to what new gadget to buy or which referendum to support. Age increasingly has less to do with leverage than with one’s reach and capacity to persuade—and millennials have both in spades. Consider but two examples:

At age thirteen, Lane Sutton runs his own consulting business, complete with paying clients and invitations to address conferences and meet with CEOs. This eighth-grade student is considered one of the leading social media strategists. When he’s not advising the likes of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and actor Tom Cruise, he’s reviewing movies, food, books, and gadgets on his Kid Critic website and for his 3,000+ followers on Twitter.

Tavi Williams started the Style Rookie blog when she was twelve years old. In the two years since, this young girl from Chicago has taken the fashion world by storm, invited to sit in the front row at the biggest runway shows, appearing on the cover of Pop magazine, being wooed with free clothing, and, most recently, selected to style New York Fashion Week’s season presentation, where she helped dress participants, including performers Amanda Blank and the Pierces.

Whether advocating a product purchase, a cultural experience, or a point of view, this generation knows how to get heard.

As a Generation, They Have Unprecedented Power to Effect Change
In Euro RSCG’s study, 92 percent of millennials agreed the world needs to change, 84 percent consider it their duty to bring about that change, and nearly as many (82 percent) believe they have the power to do so. I believe them.

The development of social media has coincided with the emergence of social issues of particular interest and relevance to today’s young people, including climate change, child exploitation, immigration, and political oppression. Oscar Morales, one of our fantastic OYW counselors, used Facebook to create a movement against FARC, the Columbian terrorist organization. His efforts led to some 12 million people marching against FARC in 200 cities in more than forty countries. In the U.S., DreamACTivist is a social media site led by migrant youth to push for passage of legislation that will help fix the immigration system. In France, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) is an organization started by teenage girls in Paris to mobilize for the rights of women and girls facing violence. They communicate with the international community through their website and Facebook page.

In no other era have youth had such enormous capacity and potential to influence the broader society and effect real social change. It is up to those of us in older generations to support their efforts with the full weight of the tools, knowledge, and resources available to us. This is a generation that wants to make a genuine difference, not just for themselves but for all of us here now and generations to come. They are smart, they are savvy, they are plugged in, and they have the creativity and passion we desperately need as we work to solve the world’s most pressing issues. It is of vital importance that we invite them into our work and take full advantage of all they have to offer.

David Jones is global CEO of Havas and Euro RSCG Worldwide and cofounder of One Young World, the premier forum for young leaders across the globe. This piece originally appeared in the publication The Youth Effect: Toolkit for Decision Makers on Engaging with Youth.

The Youth Effect was created to inspire leaders of organizations across sectors to believe in the capability of youth and to develop the skills of established leaders in being able to engage and collaborate more effectively with youth. It is part of an effort to ensure that children and youth are an integral part of designing, shaping, and creating a more sustainable future. Learn more here.

Image credits: Creative Commons/Climate;

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