Like a body gasping for oxygen in the midst of a heart attack, so is the current American civil society gasping for the “public spirit” that enamored sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century and has sustained our democracy since. This decline has culminated in a lack of civic trust. Today, Americans have largely lost faith in the pillars of 20th-century democracy, with only 41 percent expressing trust in organized religion, 20 percent in the media, and 23 percent in organized labor. We are also less trusting of each other. By 2055, America will no longer have a single racial or ethnic majority—yet our most ethnically diverse communities suffer from higher levels of social distrust, highlighting that our society is far from embracing the power and potential of a more diverse and inclusive country.
While these trends are consistent across all age demographics, the epicenter lies with millennials—those born between 1981 and 1996—who will soon comprise the largest segment of the US electorate. Only 25 percent of millennials express confidence in the democratic system, and a significant majority (67 percent) in one survey expressed that “you need to be very careful in dealing with people,” illustrating an alarmingly distrustful attitude.
Despite the stakes millennials hold in shaping our country, they are systematically excluded from the civic dialogue, including from the inaugural articles of this essay series. This is not unique to this moment in time. Throughout our history, civil society has contributed to the silencing of young voices by providing narrow access to leadership in both thought and practice. Young leaders such as Alice Paul, Cesar Chavez, and DeRay Mckesson have had to chart a resistance path outside institutional civil society to exercise their leadership. And even when young civic leaders do emerge on the national stage, they are seen as extraordinary rather than representative of their generation and peers. Over time, civil society has failed to reinvent itself to ensure that not just a select few but all young people are informed, empowered, and able to exercise their civic agency. This is despite the fact that the vision, leadership, and tenacity of young people has garnered some of the most transformational changes in America.
Today, we see civil society not only perpetuating this pattern, but also losing relevance and lacking the cultural competence to engage millennials effectively. The institutions that make up civil society have been slow to adapt to the way that rising generations think, learn, and act, leaving young people disconnected and disenchanted.
This crisis of civic trust, coupled with the rise of a new generation, presents a window of opportunity for American civil society to chart a new course. Our ability to reboot civil society depends on unlocking millennials’ civic leadership potential by gaining a deeper insight into their unique values and powerful ethos. Here are three such insights:
Millennials view the common good as the collective responsibility of all sectors—civil, private, and public. Both the 2017 and 2018 millennial surveys by Deloitte Consulting LLP concluded that young people believe business should prioritize not only the bottom line, but also employees, society, and the environment. Additionally, most believe it is important to give back to their community through work. They want to work for leaders and institutions that embody and produce positive societal value, irrespective of sector. In this regard, civil society also has a long way to go to unshackle itself from the structures and norms that have upheld disenfranchisement in America. Despite its mission, the social sector has often contributed to inequity and injustice by advancing top-down solutions with limited input from and/or ownership by the communities it impacts. To authentically appeal to millennials, each sector must evolve to become more stakeholder-driven and responsive to its community’s demands. They must engage those proximate to the issues they seek to solve while also building the muscle for cross-sector collaboration to advance public good.
Millennials live at the nexus of personalization and community. They are socialized to operate through a loose connection of networks, which enable them to explore and tap into different dimensions of their interests and identity. This affects how they prefer to engage in civil society as well; they desire a personalized, individual journey, combined with access to a social network that cultivates community and a shared mission. Through the use of social media, millennials have grown accustomed to platforms that enable users to create an individual brand, curate a personalized experience by following and engaging with topics and people of interest to them, and be a part of self-selected communities organized around shared interests and goals.
Millennial-led organizations—including Watsi, which connects donors with people who can’t afford health care, and Voatz, which uses biometrics and blockchain tech to help people vote securely—are leveraging this formula of personalization and community building to engage millennials in civic activities. Organizational models like these are not limited to new entities; some long-standing institutions are also making significant headway in terms of adapting their platforms to better reach millennials. United Way Worldwide, for example, has revolutionized its giving campaigns through creating inspiring causes and effective integration of tech-based tools through a partnership with Salesforce.org. The NAACP is also investing in millennials and post-millennials under the leadership of Tiffany Dena Loftin, director of Youth and College Division. Loftin bridges traditional, community-based organizing with social media savvy, which facilitates deep skill-building while developing comradery and shared vision across geographies. These exemplars provide a blueprint for civil society institutions to think strategically about their engagement models: leveraging technology, creating both personalized and communal experiences for supporters, and personifying issues through effective use of storytelling.
Millennials see social impact as self-expression. The belief that change happens through a series of daily decisions is perhaps the marker of this generation. While millennials have largely lost faith in institutions to drive change, they are finding ways to exercise their agency through purchasing decisions, entrepreneurship, protests, and social media campaigns that use tools such as online petitions. They believe these individual choices will add up to systems change.
This is leading to a new wave of organizations facilitating civic action in ways that resonate with rising generations. One example is Shared Nation, a membership platform where everyday individuals can pool their funding—with participation starting at $2 per month—to support organizations solving big global problems. Civil society, particularly philanthropy, can tap into this millennial spirit by creating access points to crowdfunding efforts that leverage the power of grassroots giving, and by creating opportunities for small-but-meaningful civic actions that unleash the power of the “everyday change maker.”
As long as we continue to look at our country’s crisis of trust from the lens of 20th-century institutions and fail to recognize the need for a system reboot informed by a new generation, we will deepen the chasms that threaten our democracy and alienate the very people that have the power to redeem it.
So how do we change this? We can start by taking three important steps:
Invest in young leaders and entrepreneurs, particularly those proximate to communities who experience civic disenfranchisement, including communities of color and low-income communities.
Create formal, capitalized structures for young people to innovate and lead within existing organizations.
Engage young leaders as experts in both mainstream and industry-specific dialogue.
Through these investments, structures, and engagement, we believe we can begin to revitalize the “public spirit,” and architect a new civil society that is reflective of and relevant to our current milieu.