Field notes

Stepping out of the baby boomers' shadow

WASHINGTON • For one week in June, millennials gathered in Washington, DC, for a very, well, "millennial" event.

Yoga sessions, an "unconference" - millennial speak for a loosely structured conference - job fairs, networking sessions and a day of volunteerism all came under the banner of Millennial Week. Some might gawk at the narcissism, but Dr Natalie Moss, 34, a scientist by training, founded the week and got it officially recognised by the mayor of DC precisely because of her generation's bad image.

"We have a reputation for being lazy, selfish, narcissistic, and I wanted to use this as a way to rewrite the narrative," said Dr Moss, who is planning on expanding the concept to other cities next year. "It gives us a chance to highlight millennials who are putting in good work and creating change."

Mr Patrick Dowd (standing) started the Millennial Trains Project, which takes 25 young people on a 10-day train journey across the US, allowing them to see new regions, meet new people and develop ideas to help themselves and the communities they enc
Millennials this year surpassed baby boomers as the largest living generation in the US, according to the Census Bureau. Seen here discussing the millennial generation are (from left) Slate journalist Jamelle Bouie; Mr Matthew Segal, co-founder of Our Time and ATTN; CNN correspondent Sunlen Serfaty; millennial spokesman Steven Cruz; and Mr Steven Olikara, co-founder of Millennial Action Project. PHOTO: GARRETT JAMES

Mr Patrick Dowd (standing) started the Millennial Trains Project, which takes 25 young people on a 10-day train journey across the US, allowing them to see new regions, meet new people and develop ideas to help themselves and the communities they enc
Mr Patrick Dowd (standing) started the Millennial Trains Project, which takes 25 young people on a 10-day train journey across the US, allowing them to see new regions, meet new people and develop ideas to help themselves and the communities they encounter.  PHOTO: MILLENNIAL TRAINS PROJECT 

The change Dr Moss speaks of is happening right now in America and not least because of her generation's sheer numbers.

Millennials this year surpassed baby boomers as the largest living generation in the United States, according to the US Census Bureau. There are 83.1 million millennials born between 1982 and 2000, against 75.4 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964.

The millennial generation is not only driving change in politics, but also on the business and social front, most noticeably through the rise of social entrepreneurships where they are developing business models to address social needs.

According to the many surveys that have tried to tease out what it means to be a millennial, they are more racially diverse, politically liberal, burdened by debt, unable to afford a home of their own, distrustful of others - yet still optimistic about their future.

Businesses and employers are learning to make changes to accommodate this next wave of workers who have different priorities and spending patterns.

And the digital and multiracial environment they are growing up in is shaping their identity - making them very different from generations past.

When it comes to political affiliations, for example, millennials are definitely shifting the bar.

A Pew Research Centre study last year showed that half of all millennials considered themselves independents - the highest level of disaffiliation in 25 years.

"Millennials are not going to be told what to think," said Mr Steven Olikara, 25, co-founder and president of the Millennial Action Project (MAP), a group that hopes to create a political environment in the US with cooperation the governing principle. "They are not like other generations that march to a partisan drum."

Mr Olikara explains that while millennials tend to vote Democrat because of their liberal stance on social issues such as gay marriage, they do not believe in "big government" solutions to all the country's problems.

Although the rift between Republicans and Democrats continues to widen, millennials say they do not see much difference between the two parties.

This is due to the "blanket association of dysfunction throughout government", said Mr Olikara, which also adds to the general apathy among young voters. "There needs to be a new political culture in the country."

In 2013, MAP helped to organise the Congressional Future Caucus - a group of US lawmakers aged 45 and under. The caucus drives legislation on what Mr Olikara calls "post-partisan" issues such as the sharing economy, job innovation and automatic voter registration.

Through a round table hosted by MAP, 25 public and private sector leaders decided to introduce the idea of social impact bonds - issued by the government to raise private capital for public good.

"There were Democrats and Republicans across the table and they decided they wanted to do this," said Mr Olikara, citing it as an example of how young people across the aisle can work together for change.

The inherent diversity of the generation - 44.2 per cent are part of a minority race or ethnic group, making it more diverse than any generation before - would also affect policy decisions and the make-up of government itself.

Already, the Congressional Future Caucus, which has 25 members, has a mix of races, ethnicities and gender - indicative of how the stereotypical white, male lawmaker could soon be a thing of the past.

"The country is evolving and this generation is going to have to make changes in the best interest of all groups," said Dr Moss.

The generation is not only driving change in politics, but also on the business and social front, most noticeably through the rise of social entrepreneurships where they are developing business models to address social needs.

Responding to the notion that millennials are part of a "me" generation, Mr Olikara pointed out that millennials have an extremely high community service rate.

According to census data analysed by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 20 per cent of adults under 30 volunteered in 2013, up from 14 per cent in 1989.

Said Dr Moss: "What distinguishes millennials from other generations is the need to see social value in their work. There is an increase in social entrepreneurships not to make money but because they want to create change."

Mr Patrick Dowd, 28, is one such millennial. In 2012, he started the Millennial Trains Project, which takes 25 young people on a 10-day train journey across the US, allowing them to see new regions, meet new people and develop ideas to help themselves and the communities they encounter.

He said that after working on Wall Street and watching the Occupy Wall Street protests, he decided that as an alternative to protest, young people should use better platforms to "put their ideas in motion, and connect with people across the country".

On the train, mentors such as Mr Craig Newmark, founder of online classifieds Craigslist, and Mr Scott Paterson, designer and product lead at design and consulting firm Ideo, inspire and guide these artists, researchers, writers and social entrepreneurs from various backgrounds, helping to bring their ideas to fruition.

For example, Ms Randi Gloss, 24, who owns an online T-shirt company, used the journey to create a documentary on what it is like to be black in America. At the same time she used pop-up stores at each stop to sell her designs, which provide social commentary on world issues.

Then there was Ms Marzena Zukowska, 25, who, while on the train, worked on the idea of setting up a freelance network for undocumented immigrants so that they can find work.

"Millennials want to live a good life, but it's not exclusively about being materially wealthy, they want to balance individual and community needs," said Mr Dowd.

How they view time is also very different from their parents' generation, according to Ms Lauren Rikleen, author of You Raised Us - Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success And Building Strong Workplace Teams.

"They feel time is infinite and work is important, having a life is important, and relationships are important. They want to prioritise various components of their lives and that gets interpreted as not wanting to work hard," said Ms Rikleen, who acknowledged that for baby boomers this concept is a harder sell.

Growing up with different - and more difficult - economic circumstances is another characteristic of the generation.

The Pew Research Centre states that millennials have higher levels of student debt, poverty and unemployment than baby boomers and Gen Xers at the same stage of their lives while the MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest US private philanthropies, released a poll in June showing 77 per cent of millennials thought owning a home would be harder for them than it was for previous generations.

Not surprising, considering the hefty student loans many have to shoulder. According to Pew, two-thirds of recent bachelor degree recipients have outstanding student loans which average about US$27,000 (S$38,500), compared with 20 years ago, when only half of recent graduates had college debt which averaged about US$15,000.

Yet, many surveys still point to millennials as a generation optimistic about their future; some even say they are more hopeful than previous generations.

Dr Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer for millennial research and strategy firm The Centre for Generational Kinetics, said the optimism stems from a number of factors including being raised by helicopter parents whom they can fall back on, and less pressure to reach major milestones in life that previous generations might have faced. "There is a huge shift now. It's OK to not get married even after the age of 30, people are having kids later in life," said Dr Dorsey. "You can stay home, you don't have to be 30 and living with three roommates - life is good."

He also pointed out that while the generation does face problems of unemployment, many with jobs are "out there making it happen".

"They are generally overlooked in the story. It's not all doom and gloom," he said.

But more significantly, their optimism seems to stem from witnessing significant social and political changes in their lifetimes and the knowledge that they can and will be able to influence what is to come.

"We see the Supreme Court legalising gay marriage and we see the first black president being voted into office; we never would have expected this to happen," said Dr Moss.

Mr Dowd added: "We must still ask ourselves, what's the best that we could be, because we have the opportunity to be that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2015, with the headline 'Stepping out of the baby boomers' shadow Field notes'. Print Edition | Subscribe