Columns

Steinman ’19: iChange the world

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 3, 2016

While working for a political campaign over winter break, I was asked to research the young innovators that make up this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 winners. The selection lists 600 of “the brightest young entrepreneurs, breakout talents and change agents” in 20 fields, from finance to Hollywood.

A few of the names were familiar, like Selena Gomez and Fetty Wap. The rest blended into an anonymous pool of excellence brimming with Goldman Sachs vice presidents and tech-startup dropouts with energetic Twitter bios. Everything about each of them — from the dorm room origin story to the polished, confident headshot — exuded grit, hustle and a sense of purpose that we associate with success in a tumultuous economy. It’s a fascinating cross-section of talented young people and their accomplishments. But what caught my attention most was the graphic at the bottom of the page that examined the honorees’ values. When asked “Why did you decide to be an entrepreneur?” 64 percent of the honorees replied that they wanted to change the world. Only 1 percent — or roughly six people — said that they wanted to get rich, and only 2 percent defined success as achieving wealth and power.

These answers surprised me. On one hand, they paint a hopeful and flattering portrait of the so-called millennials as young idealists who devote their lives to making the world a better place. It’s encouraging and comes with the promise of a future in which leaders and policymakers put aside self-interest and work towards the common good. Right?

I’m not sure. The threshold for “changing the world” has been lowered; the formerly disruptive is becoming downright traditional. Millennials are noted for their desire to shift paradigms and create disruption, but an underlying paradox arises when the idea of fundamental change becomes mainstream. Young people increasingly aspire to follow a generationally defined revolutionary path: graduate college (or drop out), start a business, change the world. The unconventional becomes inevitably, irrevocably conventional. According to one survey conducted by the Kauffman Foundation in 2011, over half of millennials want to start their own businesses. A separate survey by Buzz Marketing Group found that 33 percent of 18-29-year-olds had actually launched side businesses. Our generation notoriously values independence and distrusts systems; as a result, the phenomenon of going it alone rather than working for a bank or corporation right out of college makes sense. We hustle, we hack and we disrupt, but to what end? The designer Dan Saffer once criticized so-called “innovation for innovation’s sake” as leading to “purple ketchup and Crystal Pepsi — products that no one needs and few actually desire.” Similarly, we don’t need another barrage of apps aspiring to be the Uber for gas stations or shopping. The entrepreneurial spirit may be alive, but it has lost its direction.

If we, as millennials, want to change the world, we’re doing it wrong. If change were as formulaic as the national conversation would have us believe, we’d all be college dropouts working out of garages and solving the world’s issues one by one. But I have a feeling that the manifestation of our fierce independence might actually be working against us. If coming together brings change, then the scattering of institutions and the desire to disrupt systems might well lead to stagnation. There is good reason for our distrust: Institutions can oppress, exclude and be slow to change. There is no doubt that the urgent complaints of marginalized populations need to be heard and amplified. But a generation that eschews coming together to contribute to systems that support and enhance the world will get very little done without a unified purpose.

There is hope: Hundreds of young people on the 30 Under 30 list and millions more around the world are making real change, improving lives through activism, art and grassroots organizations. Thanks to social media and the associated increase in connectivity, it is easier now than ever before to effect social change or launch a political movement. But apps and hashtags will never be enough, and paradigm shifts don’t happen on a screen. Mass-produced movements only serve to water down ideals. When grassroots movements manage to translate their momentum onto the streets, they impact the national conversation; when they don’t, they disappear into the noise.(remember Kony 2012?) The face of activism may be evolving, but real change is still an offline, physical phenomenon that brings together wide swaths of the population for a common purpose.

Right now, according to the Washington Post, there are only two institutions that a majority of millennials trust: the military and scientists. That’s a clear sign of a society in crisis. But to create positive change, the solution is not to disperse and disrupt, but to unite and rebuild. With unprecedented tools of connection, our generation is uniquely empowered to regroup, organize and take advantage of the power of numbers to create inclusive social change.

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