“If you can’t change it, leave it!”Why the future is up to Generation Y
Did you play endless hours on a Gameboy as a child? Can you finish the chorus to this song: “Take me down to the Paradise City...”? Then you are a true teen of the 90s, born around 1980 and now enjoying the best years of your working life. And just the right age to realize your dreams. We talked to Scilla Elworthy, three times nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, about how and why Generation Y will influence world events. Read More
Did you play endless hours on a Gameboy as a child? Can you finish the chorus to this song: “Take me down to the Paradise City...”? Dance the Macarena? Do the words Vanilla Ice conjure up something other than cool summer refreshment? When you think of Mark Wahlberg, does Marky-Mark with his sexy six-pack in Calvin Klein ads come to mind rather than his latest blockbuster?
Then you are a true teen of the 90s, born around 1980 and now enjoying the best years of your working life. And just the right age to realize your dreams. According to sociologists, as a member of “Generation Y”, you question the status quo of your living conditions more than any other generation – there is a reason the “Y” stands for “why”.
Strictly speaking, members of Generation Y can be born up to the year 2000 give or take a year or two, and so are sometimes called “Millennials”. This is a fairly wide age range that does not always make sense – the experience of teens in the 90s was very different from today. Generation Y is also characterised by the lifestyle lived by those born in and around the 1980s:
We are well educated (often with a vocation or university degree), love technology and were the first generation to grow up in a technical environment (Atari 64, Gameboy, Internet from 56k modem to DSL, smartphones, tablets and the like). Instead of prestige and status, we focus on the search for meaning (“why?”) and self-realisation. We reject hierarchies, rules and regulations in our jobs, or at least challenge them, and tend to be independent with a well-developed start-up mentality. Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous are typical socio-political movements for Y-ers. For us, politics is a question of ethics, responsible consumption and lifestyle.
Does this describe you? Then please take note: Those of us who define ourselves as members of this generation will soon be running the world, at least quantitatively. As of 2020, we will represent 50% of the global workforce and be the largest group of consumers. This gives us a lot of power we need to be aware of.
We talked to Scilla Elworthy about how Generation Y will influence world events. She founded the Oxford Research Group over 30 years ago in order to develop effective dialogue between nuclear weapons policy-makers worldwide and their critics, work which has included a series of dialogues between Chinese, Russian and Western nuclear scientists and military. Which is why she has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is also Councillor for the World Future Council.
Scilla, you often stress the power of Millennials to drive change and call them the “Regeneration Generation“. What makes our generation so special compared to the ones who came before
Your generation is indeed very different regarding the major priorities you set in life: planet, people, purpose and – at the very end of the list – profit. An overwhelming number of Millennials worldwide consider environmental protection, addressing climate change, resource scarcity and biodiversity loss, as their no.1 priority. Inequality of income and wealth and unemployment are the next concerns many Millennials raise, while personal and professional development, coaching and learning are important for more than 50% of Millennials. They prefer to work with organisations that are ethical, transparent, invest in their staff, and regard profit as the lowest priority. Most Millennials only consider profit important in as far as it sustains their cost and standard of living. All this together is causing sleepless nights for many CEOs worldwide.
To ask the question typical of our generation: why?
Because an overwhelming 75% of people believe that businesses are focused on their own agendas rather than helping to improve society – but these points are very important for the Millennial Generation. My impression is that they carefully chose which company they want to work with. They are highly educated and in great demand.
So attracting and keeping Millennials can become quite difficult for a company?
Definitely. These developments have begun to force companies to change their values, their priorities and, most of all, change the way they treat people. So many executives I meet are exhausted. They have no meaning in their lives and they are mentally stressed – that’s not good for them, not good for their children and families. They have reached the point where key performance indicators have become meaningless to their staff, and values have become equally empty concepts. Quarterly figures dominate everything and preclude any considerations for the environment, ecology or even human needs. Millennials feel that the moral compass has disappeared. Many express the need for a sense of purpose at work, and to align what they do every day with what’s happening in the wider world. They say they want to make a contribution, to feel there is meaning in what they do.
What would be your advice for the Millennials working as employees in companies with hierarchical structures that are rarely open to change and innovation?
That’s a very real problem. Many people are so pleased they have a job and don’t want to raise their voices. And many are afraid that they wouldn’t be heard anyway. So my suggestion would be: if you really can’t bear it where you work, write down very clearly and politely what’s wrong and send it to the chairman of the board. Not to the managing director, but to the chairman of the board. And if the chairman does not reply or there is no positive reaction, leave and find another job. Even though the income might be lower, at least you’ll be doing something that is closer to your heart. A lower salary is better than working somewhere where you’re unhappy.
Even if Millennials feel the need to change the world around them, the global financial and economic crisis puts a certain pressure on them. Do you think that the crisis influences the desire for change in a positive or negative way? Does it increase fear or raise their courage to move forward?
I think the crisis is in Millennials’ favour. Statistics might frighten them, but the crisis has very clearly shown what’s wrong in our world, and the desire to change it for the better will grow stronger and stronger. Millennials have a very strong voice via social media, and the more you speak out clearly about what bothers you, the more you are heard. Just keep doing it!
Remember the Gandhi quote: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you – then you win.” It doesn’t matter if people are cynical towards you or roll their eyes at you – whatever they do, keep going!
Especially in the West, people are very privileged, even if they don’t realize it in their daily lives. But it’s so much easier for them to speak out loud. The future is up to us all and it is up to us to speak.
What can one do to speak out loud to shape the world for the better?
Find out what it is that breaks your heart, be it pollution, animal rights, or social justice. For me, for instance, it has been refugees and people who have suffered from and fled war. Then match it with your own personal skills and act on that. We’re always strongest when we are following our passion and doing things we care about most – that gives us energy; that gives us strength.
What would be the best way to do it – should I change my consumer habits? Join an organization? Change my work?
All of it if you can. Unprecedented productive capacities and the rise of the advertising industry have promoted a global 'consumer culture' as the principle means of satisfying human desires and achieving happiness. This ‘value-free consumption’ is an illusion. We have now reached a stage where it must be directly tackled. Policy-makers must now encourage consumers to make ‘value-based’ consumption choices that do not threaten our shared future.
You could also get in touch with a remarkable person called Darshita Gillies. She is setting up an organisation to persuade companies to have at least one Millennial on their main Board of Directors, to act as ‘Guardians of Future Generations’ in alignment with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In other words they would act to ensure their company followed ethical sourcing practices, fair trade, cradle-to-cradle re-cycling – and to stop any dumping of toxic waste or other practices that will harm our children’s future. What a great job!
Is there even more I can do on a personal level in my day-to-day life?
For instance: If you’re in contact with children, try to influence their consumer habits from an early stage. We as parents, grandparents or the parents’ friends have a big responsibility to teach them what should be bought and what not. Children are so open-minded and so willing to learn that they’ll understand. The pressure of advertising is strong and we really have to stand up against it and explain to them “this is the reason why we’re not buying it”. Instead of buying the latest game (it’s not about buying them sweets or games at all), find a donkey to ride or teach them how to grow vegetables: Do something with them that they love. Children love animals or things they can do with their own hands.
What might come of the Millennials’ efforts to create change and their activities?
Some of the Millennials might feel like they are the forgotten generation. Please be aware of the power you hold in your hands. Raise your voice and change will be massive. Remember: you’ll be soon the biggest consumer class in the world. In 2020 it will be the needs and the consumer habits of the Millennials companies have to satisfy. And what’s more: companies will have to meet their demands for how a responsible, transparent and caring company should be. That’s a huge transformation process companies will have to go through. Millennials really care for the environment, for instance. I’m convinced that they could force the big companies to stop polluting the oceans.
Do you shop in supermarkets?
Yes, of course.
Then go to your shop and ask to see the manager. Tell him, that you won’t buy grapes in a plastic package any longer. Tell him that you’ll put them in a brown paper bag and weigh it this way, and that you want to carry it home in eco-friendly packaging. He’ll remember it, believe me.
Like the initiatives of the Hawaiian environmental advocacy groups, who have addressed the serious issue of plastic pollution over and over again. With the result that Hawaii has now banned all plastic bags at grocery checkouts. But it took them years.
Change will take time, of course. But your generation will speed it up. Social movements such as AVAAZ are growing by one million members a month, and in 2014 drove the largest climate mobilisation in history with 675,000 people in the streets in 162 countries! They got the UN Secretary General, 18 cabinet ministers, and countless politicians to join the march.
US President Obama also responded to the climate march, saying: "Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them."