We’ve breached the era of the twenty-something.

That’s what I keep hearing, at least. It’s a hot topic among sociologists and the media, not to mention parents who watch, bewildered, as their children move back home after college.

Having spent my entire adult life in New York City, my own notion of what it means to be a twenty-something differs somewhat from the standard fare: this is the city of careers and nightlife, ambition and the exploration of options; where the few who do settle down with their life partner before the big three-oh get odd looks from new acquaintances and “are-you-sure”s from old friends.

While many of us roll our eyes at the label and all the accompanying connotations, anecdotal and anthropological evidence does suggest a new adolescence is upon us.

As a member of this inaugural generation, I’ll take it upon myself to point out that we aren’t exactly stepping up to own the title. Some of the phrases oft tossed around by our elders to describe us include “unreliable,” “unwilling to commit,” and “don’t recognize the necessity of hard work.” Not exactly a winning combination, and unfortunately those who tout these thoughts generally do seem to be pulling from at least some direct experience (though it’s hard to completely avoid the almost-inevitable whiff of a ‘rock’n’roll-is-ruining-kids-these-days’ attitude…).

Just to be clear, I’ll put it out there that I fundamentally disagree with the negative outlook.

Ours is a generation fortunate to have grown up in an era with previously-unimaginable levels of resources and information almost instantaneously accessible. The vast majority of us have never been in want of having our basic needs fulfilled (though whether this is a good thing or simply puts us in therapy is currently up for debate). We have also come of age in a more globalized world than any prior, which I like to think has allowed us to be a generation more open to and accommodating of outsiders and their ideas than our predecessors – and less susceptible to “other-izing” the unfamiliar.

We almost undoubtedly are reaching maturity in the midst of a significant paradigm shift. With continuing, accelerating developments in automation and computing technologies, our perception of the possible has been hugely altered from that of generations before us (my two-year-old iPhone is more powerful than the computers that helped guide man to the moon, and I can send a document from my computer through the air to the printer, 30 feet and two rooms away, where it then magically appears in physical form — that’s pretty dang close to teleportation if you ask me). On the less-optimistic side, the world today exists in a state of both economic and environmental uncertainty, and the global population continues to continues to explode (from both ends).

This is not the same environment our forefathers, grandfathers, and fathers grew up in, so it isn’t exactly surprising that it calls for a shift in our pace of acclimation and perhaps a delay of when we’re ready for the whole mortgage-and-a-kid thing.

It’s all admittedly a little daunting, which may be why many of us have thus far failed to impress our elders.

Here’s the thing though: in this new era, we wield power unlike any that came before. As we learn how to control and utilize this newer, more volatile energy in this newer, more volatile world, our generation will do great things.

But beyond all of these external circumstances exists what I find to be the most interesting characteristic of this new age: fundamentally, a great majority of us seem to be devoted to the idea of using this new-found power to do good in our careers and lives. Beyond the checkbook, beyond the Girl Scout cookies, beyond the token weekend at Habitat for Humanity, this appears to be the first generation in which many — perhaps most — of us wish to find fulfillment in our jobs and careers, and make that desire a priority as we design our lives. We want to feel as though a contribution to a larger purpose or cause is woven into our everyday lives; for many of us, the hours between 9am and 5pm are about much more than money.

Perhaps it’s a result of our more globalized, media-rich perspective: we witness injustices not only in our own communities but also around the world, and want to do our part to eradicate them. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been so fortunate as to have our own basic needs (and then some) met – we now have a cognitive surplus available to consider more than just our own little lives.

Perhaps it’s simply because it’s much harder to be a jerk these days. Whether it’s the woman on the train using her education as justification for being inconsiderate and disrespectful, a kid who got wrapped up in a bad moment and turned temporarily stupid, or a nonprofit organization acting somewhat less than honorably, information gets out. Anonymity, for better or for worse, is dying, and it is increasingly difficult to get away with being selfish.

Likewise, in addition to devoting our careers to companies and causes we support (and it should be noted that the number of “good” endeavors a person can pursue is enormous – what an individual will find personally fulfilling within that selection varies widely), we’re also more likely to patronize institutions whose values align with our own: department stores that give a percentage of revenue to back to the community, universities that take care to not send their students into life-altering debt, household cleaning products that are kind to the environment, and on and on.

Because of all these things, I foresee tremendous growth in the coming years in the realm of social entrepreneurship, but in particular around four specific nodes on that spectrum:

  • First, nonprofits. Our startup-oriented, value-creating generation will likely and rightly explore new territory with 501(c)(3)s.
  • In particular in the nonprofit world, I imagine there will be significant exploration of the organization that utilizes innovative business models. While many charities may somewhat inherently be non-lucrative labors of love, many others could benefit from a savvy approach that takes care to maximize value, revenue, and talent to provide the greatest possible benefit to their beneficiaries. charity:water and OpenPlans jump first to my mind in this realm.
  • One step over on the spectrum is the for-profit business that integrates a social mission into its structure and operation in an inseparable manner. One need only venture into Union Square on a spring afternoon and look down to see the success TOMS Shoes has had with this approach.
  • And yet another category will be the for-profit business whose products and services don’t blatantly fall under the “good” heading, but take care to embrace accompanying causes or charitable projects. Tactics to support this approach could include offering employees a paid day each month to volunteer at their charity of choice, partnering with a local school and mentoring students there, or providing its goods or services pro bono to populations in need (Taproot, while itself a 501(c)(3), does an excellent job of facilitating this sort of giving from for-profits to nonprofits on both an individual and organizational basis). I imagine this will become a widely-utilized method to engender brand loyalty among customers willing to pay a premium to support a cause they believe in, and company loyalty among employees who might otherwise be enticed to seek employment they find more fulfilling.

There is no denying we live in interesting times. With the technology and myriad means of communication available, the capacity of these new twenty-somethings (and anyone else who chooses to embrace the tides of change and development in order to forge a productive place in the world) to effect real change — to do good — is enormous. Delivering on that capacity and fulfilling our potential is now up to us.

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