When I was living in Boston I had the opportunity to meet one of the authors of what was at the time the definitive book on the Millennial Generation, William Strauss. The book, Millennials Rising, explained that Millennials were the rising generation born from 1978-1998. Given that I was born in 1978, I was immediately curious about the book's findings. And, I realized that I am one of the oldest Millennials on Earth. So, I feel a great deal of responsibility and connection to my generation as one of its big brothers.
The mainstream media can not wait to tell Millennials about ourselves. They say we are lazy, entitled, narcissistic, anti-intellectuals whose leader is Lena Dunham and want everything for free. I like her show, but Girls represents a small, privileged part of our generation. A better representation of Millennials are the millions of people dedicated to military and national service.
The Millennial Generation is America's new service generation. Much like the Greatest Generation committed to fighting and keeping America productive during WW II, Millennials have dedicated our lives to fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, by serving in the Peace Corps and by serving on the home front through programs like Americorps. In addition, we are the largest and most diverse generation in America. We are the most educated generation ever- a higher percentage of Millennials have bachelor's degrees or above than any other generation. I am proud of us.
My own life mirrors much of what I have seen out of the Millennial Generation. I have been a social entrepreneur and public servant since high school. Along with the service I completed as the state required of high school students at that time, I also with friends started my high school's Black Student Union. And, my commitment to public service did not stop after I got into college. While in college I served as an elected official in my school's student government and was very active on campus. My senior year of college I helped write two business plans- one for a tech startup and another for a nonprofit. I chose to help start the nonprofit, United Leaders, and ended up running it for six years. I have completed tons of service hours, volunteered and was staff for political campaigns and served on the board of many nonprofit organizations.
During my time running United Leaders I was lucky enough to meet Vanessa Kirsch, Alan Khazei and Michael Brown- the founders of New Profit, Inc. and City Year respectively. The three of them had been at the very front lines of the National Service Movement when President Bill Clinton committed to expanding national service. Through them I learned about the many young people extending their service experiences beyond high school and college by serving in Americorps, through nonprofit organizations or in full time jobs working at a nonprofit.
A generation this committed to military service, national service and education is not lazy, entitled, narcissistic or anti-intellectual. In contrast, Millennials love our country, want to help make it a more perfect union and are committed to issues much bigger than self interest. Do not believe what the media tells you or what people say about our generation. Numbers do not lie. We are on pace to become America's next great generation, inheriting the mantle from our grandparents' generation.
One area where I have been concerned about our generation since I graduated college is our level of political engagement. In 1972 50 percent of voters aged 18-24 voted. By 1996 only 32 percent of voters aged 18-24 voted. Then in 2008, largely thanks to the emergence of Senator Barack Obama, youth voter participation was back up to 50 percent. And, this year Senator Bernie Sanders' candidacy has driven the youth vote back to the polls. However, in 2000 the Institute of Politics at Harvard started an annual survey of 18-29 year olds. That year the IOP discovered a massive service gap where 59.5 percent of young people had been involved in community service in the past year but only 15.9 percent had joined a political or government related organization. This service gap continues today. In 2014 the IOP found that only 19 percent of young people consider themselves politically active or engaged. We must find a way to bridge the service gap and turn Millennial commitment to service into a shared dedication to political involvement as well.
Martin Luther King once said that "everybody can be great because anybody can serve." I believe this deeply and apparently so do a lot of people in my generation. We are a better nation when people give back and commit to ameliorating our country. The Millennials who serve are on the front lines of some of the nation's most pressing problems- national security, the education gap, housing, poverty, jobs, etc. Instead of looking down on Millennials, spend some time getting to know us. Learn about our deep commitment to military and national service. Learn about our desire to become better educated. And, learn about our diversity and how we celebrate our differences and similarities. Millennials are a rich generation- full of interesting and dedicated people. We are soldiers, volunteers, activists, social entrepreneurs, politicians and more. And, history will remember our generation for what we gave back, not what we asked for for free.