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The Currency of Change

Being young and engaged in a world without rules

In a February 2022 interview on the New York Times’ The Daily podcast, Peter Mcindoe, the 23-year-old creator of the satirical conspiracy Birds Aren’t Real, pondered aloud: “I feel like every day, I wake up and open my phone, I’m just seeing chaos. I think just kind of growing up alongside the internet, just like Gen Z or anyone my age has just kind of grown up alongside it the whole time. And with that, there’s no real rules as a society on how to deal with something like the internet. So I think with that just comes all the madness in our face at once. And I think a lot of people feel the madness and don’t really have a way to express it.”

Mcindoe’s personal call to action came at a women’s march in January 2017, when pro-Trump counter-protestors disrupted the event. He ripped a poster off a wall, and on the back of it, wrote three random words: “Birds Aren’t Real.” On the spot, he improvised an improbable narrative that exposed a far-reaching, government-led conspiracy to replace birds — all birds — with bird-like surveillance drones. Birds, he maintained, impassive, had been fake all along. We had been duped, hoodwinked.

Again.

Gen Zs across the U.S. were inspired — and oddly appeased.

“It was a spontaneous joke, but it was a reflection of the absurdity everyone was feeling,” he said.

Perhaps in the face of sustained gaslighting all that is left to do, to emerge from the punch-drunk stupor it perpetuates, is to toy with misinformation and turn it into a business that moves thousands to action.

As social movement cum entrepreneurship stories go, it’s a pretty good one, and maybe it sheds a little light on the barriers young people face when they are inspired to do something — as many are.

Largely disenfranchised in broader societal decision-making but highly valued as a consumer demographic, the young have become, over time, both drivers of culture and the primary victims of its manipulative mechanisms.

Dr. Drobac, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, recently declared that “younger generations [in my experience] are much more deeply connected to the world and to societal challenges. They want careers that allow them to create positive change.” And who hasn’t heard, ad nauseam, that Millennials want meaningful work whilst Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012), well, wants society to be meaningful. And to be more just, and, if it isn’t too much to ask, perhaps for it not to be so intent on gleeful destruction.

And while dialogue is useful, it’s now time to act. A recent Possibilists Europe report, surveying 791 individuals aged 16 to 35, outlined that young social innovators are “not primarily driven by their own employment needs and wishes, but rather by an intrinsic desire to improve the lives of others on a global and local scale.” 85% of those surveyed were very strongly motivated to mobilize and empower others in their age groups for change-making.

Yet, history tells us it wasn’t always so. The journey from teenager to change-maker has been maundering.

The Evolution of Identity

Developmental psychologist Eric Erikson defines identity as a “fundamental organizing principle which develops constantly throughout the lifespan.” According to his psychosocial development theory, the formation of identity occurs in 8 stages.

A Paris youth on scooter

Youth in Paris; Photo by Isabelle Swidersi

The fourth stage (industry vs. inferiority) which takes place between the ages of approximately 6 and 11, is key to developing a growth mindset and acquiring a sense of our competence in relation to others. But it’s during the fifth stage (identity vs. confusion), ages 12 to 18, that we begin to solidify our values and draw a clearer path to our unique role in society.

As we form meaningful connections with peers, as we try new things and question our motives, our sense of self morphs and matures. Confidence in our abilities and judgement compounds to support independence and clarity of purpose. We become ourselves. And from that firmer footing, we lay the foundation for building deep, enduring ties with others.

In the 1950s, when Erikson unveiled his theory, the process of socialization hinged on the relatively recent implementation of compulsory schooling where young people developed their own social rules, away from the influence of family or the constraints of work.

In parallel, the notion of teenager fully emerged. As it developed in the US, the word went from describing aimless — but mostly mild-mannered — youngsters, to embodying an alarming threat to social stability after the Vietnam war, to symbolizing branded trendsetters in the consumption-crazed 1980s and 90s, and finally, to picturing shot-on-iPhone navel-gazing neurotics, sporting Black Lives Matter swag as they skid through the new century’s disorienting multiverse.

Largely disenfranchised in broader societal decision-making but highly valued as a consumer demographic, the young have become, over time, both drivers of culture and the primary victims of its manipulative mechanisms. Young people are dissected and studied whilst they themselves filter and edit their experiences to be played back in simulcast. In these retouched realities, is there room for agency? What does a world in flux offer to those who’ve known little else? It turns out, for some, the opportunity to step up.

Heeding the Call to Action

“In an auditorium of 300 people, maybe five will be like, ‘Ooh, I am a crazy weird teenager that is trying to solve big problems in my community. This speaks to me.’ And word gets out. We end up getting kids and we have no idea how they heard about us, but they put their hand up that they are on this path,” explains Diego Ontaneda, cofounder of Latin American Leadership Academy (LALA). Modeled after African Leadership Academy (ALA) based in Johannesburg, LALA operates as a nonprofit seeking to create the right conditions for young people to help solve the most complex problems across Latin America.

Diego realizes it’s a tall order, but that part of their advantage as an organization lies in finding emerging leaders where they are: “The attributes we think are the biggest determinants of future leadership — like a history of past action, values, curiosity, resilience, empathy — you’re not going find them on paper. So you usually have a big information asymmetry between your admissions department and the actual applicants. We’re talking about kids from public schools, from rural areas and so on, so traditional selection mechanisms will usually work against them.”

It’s essential to trace visible pathways prompting individuals, each with their strengths and circumstances, to step forward and be taken in. This requires redefining selection criteria and, more broadly, tackling damaging, enduring perceptions that social innovation cannot coexist with commercial success. That allowing ourselves to be values-driven comes at a terrifying personal cost.

Finding Your Way in Community

Reconciling our aspirations and our sense of purpose is a challenge at any age, as the world keeps reminding us of the rational, successful thing to do. But, in our formative years, the dissonance is exacerbated when community support is absent. “The most common thing we’ve heard since the first program ran was just how lonely these kids feel,” Diego recalls. “Often, their teachers, and even their parents, are telling them: ‘Look, you’re just being naïve. You can come back to these ideas when you have a degree, when you have a job,’ so it’s tough for them.”

Three youths walking in Paris

Youths in Paris; Photo by Isabelle Swiderski

When Francesca Raoelison, founder and executive director of the youth-led nonprofit Omena, committed to breaking the cycle of emotional abuse in her native country of Madagascar, kinship came when others responded to her personal story. It was in the process of building the entity she leads that she found community and belonging, and the push she needed to persevere.

Francesca’s leadership story is as atypical as it is impressive. It’s punctuated by achievements, accolades, and institutional engagement — from serving as peer entrepreneur-in-residence at Brown University’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, to making the cut to join MassChallenge’s 50th cohort, to being chosen as a Commitment Maker (and now, 5 years later, as a Commitment Mentor) by the Clinton Foundation.

But the pace of change doesn’t slow when you finally start calling the shots. With her social enterprise’s growing momentum have come growing demands, and pressure to perform. Though the young entrepreneur’s stellar track record was made possible by visibility and external support, it was also fueled by relentless, often solitary, hard work. “In my case, what I try to do now is to be patient with myself. Really being OK with not making an impact sometimes, because you need to take care of yourself. It’s also important to surround yourself with people who understand your journey.”

As the time for incumbent generations to hand off the baton of power approaches, we’re seeing the pandemic test Gen Z’s capacity to adapt on multiple fronts and expose its vulnerabilities. That these young leaders demonstrate such drive despite the challenges they face in a world with few remaining morals should give us all hope — and remind us that change doesn’t happen by accident. It takes individuals being called to action and going on to find communities that will help them to thrive. Progress is a team sport.

As a friend of Francesca recently remarked: “You’re always there to listen to people, who is there to listen to you?”.

We are. We see you. Please keep going.

Isabelle Swiderski founded her design-for-impact agency Seven25 in 2007 to help values-driven organizations leverage the power of design. Marrying an MBA and MA in Design, Isabelle facilitates systems change and social justice and innovation work in partnership with NGOs, universities, governments, entrepreneurs, and ecosystem builders globally.

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