The millennials, the people born between 1980 and 2001, got Barack Obama elected. They turned out in record numbers, and they registered untold numbers of other voters. They grew up with computers, cell phones, and the Internet. They experienced 9/11 together. They have met the dire doomsday warnings of Al Gore and others not with resignation or despair, but with a resounding “Yes, we can!”
Last November I spent a week in Järna, Sweden, teaching social entrepreneurship to 39 millennials from 18 countries. They were participating in an 11-month gap-year program called the International Youth Initiative Program (YIP).
Being with these millennials felt like hanging out in a troupe of Cirque du Soleil performers. They were gymnasts and acrobats, dancers and jugglers, musicians, singers, sculptors, painters, writers, and filmmakers. We sang to begin each class. During breaks each morning, a clutch of them jumped into the freezing Baltic Sea. They performed impromptu skits and practiced the Brazilian martial art capoeira. They cheerfully cleaned the classroom and dining room in work crews. Most shared a poem or song in their native language on open-mike night. They looked into each other’s eyes. They cried tears of sadness and joy. They felt and expressed their anger, frustration, and outrage at the state of the world.
One day I led them in a guided meditation devised by author Joanna Macy: “Imagine yourself 75 years from now, alone in a field of soft green grasses, blue sky, and a gurgling brook nearby. Environmental disaster has been averted and war put to an end. A little girl of 8 or 9 comes skipping across the meadow and comes up to you, asking, ‘Is it really true that the world almost died from war, disease, and pollution when you were young? How did you keep from worrying all the time? How did you and your friends find the strength to turn things around and save the world?’ ”
Their answers to the final question were touching and deep:
“My friends and I did it together.”
“I touched the little girl’s heart, then the ground, and then I pointed to heaven.”
“I told her that she gave me the strength.”
Many millennials I know combine a sense of urgency about the future with a belief that they and we can and must change our direction. They know what is being asked of them, and they’re stepping up to the challenge with an attitude that says, “Like what else is there? We haven’t got much time. This is what I was born to do. Bring it on and let’s get on with it!”
Journalist Ken White has conducted “generational salons” that bring together boomers and millennials. He writes about the dynamic he has observed:
“The older generations expressed an intense yearning for the younger generations to build on their triumphs. But the younger generations seemed to have more interest in hearing what the members of each cohort have learned [from their failures] and from confronting their shadows. … If the boomers try to squeeze the millennials into their model of political organizing, the outcome seems doomed from the start. … In our generational salons, the millennials turned to the older cohorts and asked: ‘How can you help?’ ”
President Obama spoke directly to the millennials even as he spoke to all of us on the night of his election:
“Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington. … It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy. … This is your victory. I know you didn’t do this just to win an election and I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. … The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”
So, if you’re a millennial, may the force be with you. If you’re not, find one and ask, “How can I help?”
Find out more about the International Youth Initiative Program at www.yip.se. To learn about Eric Utne’s current mission and passion, Community Earth Councils, go to www.earth councils.org. Eric is collecting examples of initiatives that groups of neighbors have created to address social and environmental challenges at the local level. Please send leads to websites, articles, and other sources to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.