They grew up in the midst of two wars, came of age during the Great Recession, and graduated from college with astronomical student debt. Yet despite the global turmoil and economic hardships that ushered them into adulthood, the 80 million or so millennials in America are optimistic and convinced they'll fulfull their dreams, as other generations have before them.
According to a Gallup poll released Thursday, 80 percent of those ages 18-29 feel positive about the future and say their standard of living is improving. Their optimism seems to be paying off. A recent study by the Kauffman Foundation shows that 54 percent of millennials either want to start their own company or already have. In 2011, millennials launched nearly 160,000 startups a month, according to a study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Still, Americans in this age group continue to be labeled negatively by the media and other generations. To counter that, David Burstein, a 24-year-old filmmaker and founder of Generation18, a campaign to engage young voters, wrote the new book Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping Our World, to share a better understanding of this generation.
Burstein tells of young people across the country who are engaging in public service, starting companies, and launching non-profits, painting a icture of a civic-minded and connected generation.The Fiscal Times talked to Bustein about why millennials are different and the impact they're having on American culture, the economy and business.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): What's the biggest misconception people have of the millennial generation?
David Burstein (DB): I've seen millennials described as entitled, narcisstic and self-involved. A lot of that is coming from employers and from Generation X, people who might be a little threatened by this generation. I was frustrated with that criticism. If enough people say it enough times in enough places, it becomes true. I wanted to guard against that.
TFT: Every generation thinks it's special, of course, but you say millennials are the most influential generation in history. Why?
DB: We can't imagine what the future holds. It represents a major shift: Change is constant and the pace of change is increasing. It's normalcy for us and it puts us in a unique position. We've lived in both the new and old worlds. We've had Internet-based skills very early on, which gave us a sense that we held these magic keys to understanding this new world.
TFT: Name one specific innovation that defines this generation.
DB: It's the redefinition of what a career is, the idea that there's more to a job than just having that job. You can chase your passion and channel it into profit. There are alternative career paths that don't involve passing through the doors of human resources to achieve happiness.
TFT: How so?
DB: Since we came of age during a prosperous economy, our parents promised us we could have all these great opportunities. That [thinking] became engrained in us. But it can come off as a sense of entitlement. It's important to understand the context. We grew up in this way and it's why we still think this way.
TFT: Why do you say this generation is more optimistic than its elders?
DB: I think we see it [the economic downturn] as an opportunity. The national and international conversation tends to be more about how the world has so many problems. But millennials look at this and try to figure out what we can do to fix those problems.
DB: After the crisis, more people became interested in service and started placing a greater value on making a difference than just making money. There's a much stronger belief that if problems exist, we can do something about them.
TFT: You say this is "the most underemployed generation in modern history, yet even in the midst of a severe recession, nine out of ten millennials believe they will eventually have, or already have, enough money." Why?
DB: Their values are shifting. It's less about how we maximize profit and more about how we maximize happiness. Fewer millenials are homeowners, married and have children compared to our elders. People have an appreciation not for the institution of marriage, but for being with people they love. They're finding a sense of belonging and adulthood not in home ownership but in community.
TFT: You also say millennials are less divided on social issues. How will that shape political discourse?
DB: It already has. There's been a cultural shift. If millennials were in Congress right now they would pass bills on all of the big social issues on the first day and get on with business.