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Generation Why? – What’s different for millennials and impact

by George Hammond

We all know that millennials want to give back to the world in a meaningful way, right? As droves of school and university leavers head into impact work, and social enterprises proliferate, this sentiment has become a cliche.  Employers and independent researchers are falling over one another trying to identify the unique characteristics of our generation, and time and time again they find that “millennials care about more than just taking home a paycheck. They care about working at an organization which makes an impact”.

The evidence is there in the working patterns of “˜Generation Y’. Whether it’s a gap year spent well-building in Malawi, or clubbing together with other grads to start a high-impact social enterprise, young people doing cause-related work is increasingly the norm. And that’s not counting the multitude balancing voluntary roles with their day jobs. This rising tide is interpreted by many as a sea change; the turbulent currents of capitalism finally quelled. The generation that went before saw the levies breached, and millennials are here to mop up the mess – so goes the conventional wisdom.

But this portrait lacks nuance. We, ‘Generation Y’, are not some remarkable breed of inherent altruists, nor are this generation a radical departure from that of our parents. Instead, our hunt for impactful careers is best explained by context. Just as us millennials were beginning to make our way in work, the financial crisis arrived, rupturing the fabric of our economy and our society.   Among its host of catastrophic effects, the two greatest legacies of the crash are these: an entrenched jobs crisis, and an obligation to revaluate our values and institutions. Those institutions that collapsed, dragging the facade of stability down with them, were marred by largesse and ethics determined by gluttony. In their wake corporate social responsibility is yawning into life, and businesses increasingly have values, as well as profitability, up front.

We’re often identified as the entrepreneurial generation. We’re helped by an affinity with technology, and a sharpened focus on enterprise in education. But we’ve also got a barren jobs market, pushing more people to self-starting. Even Lord Sugar has given up employing in favour of angel investing.Along with the old economic certainties, we have also lost a great tranche of state support. In its place, enter a host of wonderful, small and innovative projects: plugging the gaps as best they can. These projects are a marvel, but they are not solving new problems. Our generation are not the first to realise that society has issues, we’re just picking up the slack of a welfare state tightening its belt.

While we’re doom-mongering how about this – millennials find themselves solving crises not out of inherent good will, but because there are crises to be solved. The existential threats of global warming or economic collapse are unifying, and prompt our generation to find creative solutions.

So I’m bursting the “Gen Y” bubble: we’re not that different. But our environment is. And in that there is a great deal to be positive about. While the reasons might be practical and pragmatic, the very fact that so many of us are turning to work which helps others is something to be celebrated.

The sea change is this then: right now the world of impact work is more exciting, dynamic and diverse than ever before. For all the negative implications of state retraction, the dwindling of government provision has opened an arena for innovation. And for all the crippling effects of recession, the demise of those institutions that caused it has cleared the decks, allowing our generation to determine how we want business to look and behave. Young professionals are now “looking strategically at opportunities to invest in a place where they can make a difference, preferably a place that itself makes a difference”, according to Forbes.  That shouldn’t be taken lightly.

What’s unique about millennials is not our inherent characteristics, but the world we inhabit. For our parents and grandparents the big, existential threats came from outside: war, hot and cold. We’ve grown up in peace, with the tech boom, in a world dominated by one nation and one ideology. This is a remarkable position. It gives us a chance to address the flaws in our own structures, rather than bolstering them from attack. One way of addressing those flaws is impact work. Done well, it can be rewarding, purposeful and fulfilling.

So the opportunity is there: to tackle big social problems in innovative and brilliant ways, and to help the people who need it most. One of the many routes for doing so is Year Here, a postgraduate course in social leadership. As a current fellow, I couldn’t recommend it enough.

 The Year Here fellowship is a full time course in social innovation based in London. They challenge top grads to a year of building smart solutions to social problems.

Image credit: Flickr / Hatipoglu CC License