How Young People Are Overcoming Bleak Economic Times

How young men and women are turning their hard times into global progress. By Jill W. Iscol.

Emely / Cultura / Corbis

In the Oct. 24 issue of New York, Noreen Malone writes about coming of age in “post-hope America.” She draws a very bleak picture of what it means to be growing up in a recession that doesn’t look to be ending soon. According to Malone, her generation—20-somethings and the early-30-somethings—are “screwed, coddled, mocked” and depressed, seemingly more interested in the Internet than in social justice.

Idealism turned sour in one so young is tragic. We are living in tough times, and young people have a lot to be concerned about. But, Noreen, don’t give up. There is a hope; your generation is turning hope into action.

The Case Foundation defines the new social citizens as digitally fluent, idealistic, and immersed in social causes. Take, for instance, Josh Nesbit, Isaac Holeman, and Nadim Mahmud, who founded Medic Mobile, which helps thousands of poor families living in remote rural areas share their medical records with clinics and hospitals. Their work saves lives. Nesbit, Holeman, and Mahmud are well below 30.

Or consider Susana De Anda, who along with her colleague Laurel Firestone directs the Community Water Center in the San Joaquin Valley in California. The water in the valley is polluted by decades of intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides as well as the waste caused by the massive influx of animal factories. She is fighting for clean water for farmworkers. De Anda told me, “My job is to empower people to become leaders, because one person is not going to change the world—it requires all of us to be a part of something big.”

De Anda is 31.

Our research tells us that this generation can be the greatest generation ever. This generation is starting NGOs, inventing solutions to longstanding human problems, forming partnerships with others around the world, standing with the poor to combat disease, providing educational opportunities, and inventing simple yet effective ways for the poor to connect to the global economy.

Leila Janah, for instance, founded a company in 2008 that allows the very poor to start their own “microwork factories” in Kenya, India, Pakistan, and Uganda, serving some of the world’s largest companies. Janah began with a simple business plan, and with a lot of spunk and hard work built a company that helps the poor to build new lives. Janah is 29.

These activists might be able to make a lot more money working for themselves or for an organization—but they chose otherwise. In the words of Toni Morrison, a life without a steady commitment to social justice is barren: “It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

A new consciousness is sweeping the globe. Columnist and bestselling author David Brooks describes it as the "new humanism"; Bill Shore, founder of Share Our Strength, describes the natural human desire to be part of something “bigger and more lasting than ourselves.”

These beliefs are more than pretty ideas sitting on a shelf to be admired but unused. They need to be acted on.

What are the qualities of the young leaders of this generation? They combine excellence in effort and performance with an ethic of fairness; they exemplify commitment and humility; and they are relentless in their pursuit of finding grassroots solutions to the complex problems of the 21st century.

So, Noreen, I have faith in you and your generation. You are turning idealism in action, and in the process transforming the world for the better one step at a time.