Friday, July 31, 2009

Millennials Think Globally and Act Locally

The phrase, “Think Globally, Act Locally” has often been used by environmentalists to sum up a strategy devoted to conserving the earth's scarce natural resources at the local level. More recently, business executives borrowed the idea to emphasize the need for building capabilities at the country or regional level even as they pursue global growth. But now the Millennial Generation, Americans born between 1982 and 2003, are giving the phrase an entirely new meaning as they pursue their efforts to change the world – one local community at a time.

In contrast to the generational stereotypes many people hold of them, Millennials are very much concerned about and connected to the world around them – more so, in fact, than many older Americans. Responding to questions on foreign policy in a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 9% of Millennials were unable to express an opinion on how President Obama is doing in working with our allies, while almost a quarter of senior citizens had no opinion on the same subject. On the knotty question of Israeli/Palestinian relations, all but 7% of Millennials could tell survey researchers what they thought of American foreign policy in this area. On the other hand, 26% of senior citizens could not (see table below).

In addition to its high level of concern with international matters, the Millennial Generation's ability to make virtual friends instantaneously on Facebook or Twitter with Iranian protesters provides a unique perspective on how to deal with America’s foreign policy challenges.

Perhaps most notable is how the Millennial Generation deals with the concept of "threats". A majority of Millennials do see Al Qaeda, and the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran as "major threats" to the United States, but by rates 15 to 20 points less than other generations. Other more intractable but less direct security concerns, such as the drug trade in Mexico, China’s emergence as a world power, or conflicts in the Mideast ranging from Pakistan to Palestine, are not considered a major threat among a majority of Millennials. To be sure, some of these attitudes may reflect the inevitable naiveté of young people, but we believe the underlying beliefs of Millennials suggest an alternative explanation.

Millennials have been taught since at least high school that the best way to solve a societal problem is act upon it locally and directly. Tired of exalted rhetoric from Boomer leaders that rarely produced results and frustrated by their older Gen-X siblings lack of interest in pursuing any collective action to address broad social problems, Millennials have embraced individual initiative linked to community action. Eighty-five percent of college age Millennials consider voluntary community service an effective way to solve the nation’s problems. Virtually everyone in the generation (94%) believes it’s an effective way to deal with challenges in their local community. No wonder one of Barack Obama’s first legislative initiatives, the Kennedy National Service Act, was in response to the desire to serve of his most loyal constituency, the Millennial Generation.

And when it comes to public service, Millennials are putting their money where their mouth is, although lack of opportunity in the private sector also could be accelerating this public service trend. Teach for America, which places new graduates in low-income schools, saw a 42% increase in applications over 2008. Around 35,000 students are now competing for about 4,000 slots. U.S. undergraduates ranked Teach for America and the Peace Corps among their top 10 "ideal employers," ahead of the likes of Nike or General Electric.

Scotty Fay, a recent University of Massachusetts graduate, typifies the continuing belief of her generation in the importance of collective action to cope with a challenging world. “If we excel and we’re able to keep ourselves working, we’ll be OK, we hope, because we haven’t experienced anything different than that,” says Fay, who worked two jobs on top of her full-time course load, and is now getting ready for her Peace Corps assignment in Guinea.

First Lady Michelle Obama, in kicking off the administration’s “summer of service” initiative, made it clear that the administration sees this belief as key to America’s future. “This new Administration doesn’t view service as separate from our national priorities, or in addition to our national priorities – we see it as the key to achieving our national priorities.” Given the likelihood of continuing employment challenges for America’s newest workers, more and more Millennials are likely to gain their first work experiences performing some type of voluntary service.

This penchant for public service shapes the beliefs of Millennials on how the United States should deal with the problems it faces around the world. In last year's contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Millennials believed Barack Obama was right and Hillary Clinton was wrong over whether to conduct direct talks with our enemies. And they thought Sarah Palin was completely off base when she declared in her acceptance speech at the convention that “the world is not a community and it doesn’t need an organizer.” In fact, Millennials believe that what the world needs most is thousands of community organizers, working on the ground to solve their own country’s problems, linked electronically, of course, to friends around the world.

This is a trend that, appropriately, resonates outside our borders as well. Grassroots activism, led largely by young Iranians, produced protests that may yet topple one of the most autocratic regimes in the world. Activism of this type across the Mideast could result in regime changes of far greater consequence than the military conquest strategy the United States employed in Iraq. Given the distinctions Millennials make between the seriousness of direct military threats, such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation, as opposed to squabbles over power or territory, America’s foreign policy is likely to shift towards a more multi-lateral, institution-building focus as this generation assumes our country’s leadership. This will occur even as Millennials continue to express support for our military by word and deed – when that becomes the only available option.

It may take a decade or two before we know how the Millennial Generation's belief in the need to “think globally, act locally” will impact our overall foreign policy. But in the interim, the United States will surely benefit from the generation's focus on rebuilding our country, as well as the world, one community at a time.

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