How Millennials are redefining prosperity: White paper

Millennials are the biggest generation in history. Astoundingly, there are 1.8 billion globally, out of 7 billion people worldwide, with 83 million living in the United States alone.(1) Ranging in age from 20-35 years old, many are well into their careers and are influencing (if not completely re-imagining) virtually every social institution, including the economy. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Millennials not only have a different relationship with money than previous generations, they have redefined prosperity itself. 

Financial service providers that understand the root causes of this sea change, and how they are being manifested in the lifestyle choices of Millennials, stand to gain the long-term loyalty of a group that will be the recipients of the biggest wealth transfer in history:  $30 billion over 30 years. (2) Conversely, financial services that fail to respond appropriately to the change could quickly find themselves becoming obsolete.

Fortunately, this massive shift is easy to understand, because it stems from two basic facts about Millennials:

1.     They seek freedom and control over their lives, and they define those terms differently than previous generations.

2.     They view money as a tool that enables them to achieve freedom and control. 

Get to know Millennials (3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(8):

-       51% of the American workforce. 75% by 2025

-       28% have already reached management level

-       43% are non-white (most racially diverse generation in U.S. history)

-       $1.2 trillion in student loan debt

-       $200 billion in annual spending power

-       80% own a smart phone

-       Most educated generation in U.S. history

 

How Millennials define freedom and control

Millennials define freedom and control as the number of choices they are able to make about their lives. The reason they place such a premium on choices is that having more of them increases the likelihood of building a lifestyle that enables one to make a positive contribution to the world.

Finding opportunities to use their knowledge, skills and creativity to improve the world is a primary motivator for Millennials, as evidenced by a 2015 Deloitte survey, which found that six in ten have chosen to work for their current employer partly because the company has a "sense of purpose." (9) 

Understanding the Millennial desire for a purposeful life, and their belief that financial health creates the freedom and control that enables them to pursue it, is a great first step for financial services seeking to gain Millennial trust.

However, a challenge remains.

 

Millennial loyalty is an uphill climb for financial services

Research indicates that financial services face serious challenges when it comes to attracting Millennial consumers. The Millennial Disruption Index says that banking is the industry most at risk for Millennial-driven disruption,(10) with four of the leading banks among the ten least loved brands by Millennials. In addition, the 2015 Makovsky Wall Street Reputation Study found that more than two-thirds of Millennials (69%) distrust the financial services industry. (11) In fact, 71% would rather go to the dentist than listen to a banker! (10) 

Millennial distrust for financial services is leading them to consider alternatives to traditional banks. Today, 49% of Millennials are interested in purchasing financial services from Google, Amazon or Apple. (12) In other words, a major segment of the Millennial population is willing to utilize the services of non-financial brands to manage its money! (11)

 

How financial services can win Millennial loyalty

Start by distinguishing between the myths and realities.

Due to their parents, the media, and society in general, Millennials have been under intense scrutiny for most of their lives, which has resulted in a pervasive mythology about their interests and traits. Unfortunately, much of the resulting narrative is negative, frequently describing them as a lazy, selfish and narcissistic group who lives in their parents’ basements and is obsessed with technology.

This one-dimensional portrayal of Millennials does them a great disservice. In reality, Millennials are highly altruistic, generous and community-minded. For example, the 2015 Millennial Impact Project revealed that 84% gave to charity in 2014, despite being underemployed and carrying heavy student loan debts. And 70% spent at least one hour volunteering. (12)

In addition, it’s important to acknowledge the context in which Millennials grew up. Many of them graduated from college during the height of the Great Recession, and according to the Pew Institute, they are “the first generation in the modern era to have higher levels of debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same time.” (5)

Yet, while Millennials currently make up 40% (13) of the unemployed, a growing number are managing to lay the foundations of economic independence, including planning for retirement, paying down debt and increasing savings.

Recognize that Millennials distrust, and are disrupting, institutions.

Multiple studies, including a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll, indicate that Millennials are the least trusting of all generations, especially when it comes to institutions. They are particularly skeptical of “government, the American justice system, and the media.” (14)

It’s easy to understand why Millennials would question societal infrastructure, considering that in their short lifetimes, they’ve witnessed:

-       The Great Recession

-       Mass shootings

-       Church sex abuse scandals

-       Racial conflict

-       Unethical behavior by politicians, athletes and celebrities

 Notice how Millennials are changing the workplace.

Millennials are having a profound impact on how business is done by seeking employers who demonstrate a commitment to solving social challenges in addition to seeking profit. New business models, like B-Corporations (businesses that are designed and certified to create as much social good as profit) are employers of choice and speak to the generation’s altruistic tendencies.

New management structures, such as the Holocracy, a self-management model pioneered by online shoe and clothing company, Zappos, (15) are also disrupting the workplace by creating greater levels of accountability and collaboration. The Holocracy is too new to be declared a success, but given that 88% of Millennials prefer a collaborative work culture over a competitive one, the Holocracy, or a similar management structure stands a good chance of succeeding. (16)

 

How financial services can engage Millennials

 What Millennials want from financial services can be summed up in two words:  Transparency and technology.

Transparency

Ambiguity in how a client’s money is managed is a relationship-killer when it comes to Millennials, especially if it involves lack of clarity about fees. In addition, multiple studies have found that Millennials believe financial advisors communicate with them in ways that feel antiquated and irrelevant to their current needs and interests.

The Millennial desire for transparency presents a huge opportunity for financial service providers. Those who lift the veil of mystery around fees, for example, while also making an effort to understand the unique economic circumstances (including fears, pressures, and aspirations) of Millennials stand a greater chance of gaining their trust.

To further solidify the relationship, financial advisors should build an ongoing partnership with their Millennial customers, one in which the advisors function like personal athletic trainers, helping clients to set and pursue goals that will enable them to reach financial autonomy. Collaborative by nature (and already steeped in both the world of personal training and the concept of personal development), Millennials will respond well to this approach. It can even help create a greater sense of transparency, since information is often more consistently and openly shared in a partnership.

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest a method of engaging Millennials that is grounded in human contact versus technology. While it is true that Millennials are fueling the growth of financial technology (FinTech) (17) such as robo-advisors (18) (online, automated wealth management systems), a 2015 study by LinkedIn found that 87% of affluent Millennials (there are 15.5 million in the U.S. alone) still value expert financial advice, especially when it is combined with digital tools that help them maintain autonomy over their financial landscape. (19)

Ultimately, any actions financial advisors and their institutions take to make information clear, comprehensive, accessible and relevant to the life stages of their Millennial clients will be rewarded.

 Technology

Efficiency. Ease-of-use. No fees. Comprehensive, turnkey solutions. Data tracking. These are all capabilities that attract Millennials to FinTech. The key, as mentioned in the previous section, is to provide them with a mix of humanity and technology that helps them feel understood, informed and in control of their finances. 

For further evidence of the Millennial desire for efficient technology coupled with in-person access to financial experts, consider credit unions, which Millennials are joining in staggering numbers. In 2014, credit union membership broke the 100 million barrier, and Millennials constituted 28% of the new members.(20) Their reasons for doing so included:

-       Local branches staffed by in-person financial experts who develop personal relationships with their customers. 

-       Belief that credit unions, especially since they are non-profit organizations, are primarily concerned with promoting the well-being of their members 

-       Up-to-date use of technology, including mobile banking

  

Five key takeaways

1.     Millennials define prosperity as the ability to make choices that lead to a purposeful life.   

2.     Millennials are more altruistic, pragmatic and hard-working than they are often portrayed in the media.

3.     Millennials distrust banks, but many still value the expertise of financial advisors, who should act like financial personal trainers by providing information and guidance that helps clients maintain autonomy over their economic landscape.

4.     Millennials are helping to drive the growth of FinTech, which is having a revolutionary impact on the financial services industry.

5.     Millennials are joining credit unions in large numbers, because they provide a holistic blend of humanity and technology.

 Conclusion

The financial services industry is experiencing a transformation that is greater in scope than anything it has experienced in the last fifty years. Among the many changes are the rise of Millennial consumers. Financial service providers that recognize the Millennial frustration with traditional institutions and their desire for financial autonomy, stand a good chance of winning the business of the largest generation alive today. The key lies in understanding the unique needs, challenges and preferences of Millennial consumers and working collaboratively with Millennials to address them. Such partnerships can position both the financial services industry and their Millennial consumers to thrive in the new marketplace of the 21st century.

 Resources

 (1)  http://www.millennialweek.com/MILL-FactSheet_52914_v2.pdf     

(2)  http://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/30-trillion-challenge/  

(3)  http://www.slideshare.net/oDesk/2015-millennial-majority-workforce

 (4)  http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/11/millennials-surpass-gen-xers-as-the-largest-generation-in-u-s-labor-force

(5)   http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/03/07/millennials-in-adulthood/

(6) https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/newsevents/mediaadvisory/2015/Student-Loan-Press-Briefing-Presentation.pdf

 (7)   http://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2015/01/20/10-new-findings-about-the-millennial-consumer/

 (8)  https://www.bbvaresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/141216_US_BW_BankMillennials.pdf

 (9)   http://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/2015-millennial-survey-press-release.html

 (10)  http://www.millennialdisruptionindex.com/

 (11)  http://www.odwyerpr.com/story/public/5059/2015-07-30/can-wall-street-win-back-millennials.html

 (12)  http://www.themillennialimpact.com/ 

 (13)  http://www.newsweek.com/2015/06/05/millennial-college-graduates-young-educated-jobless-335821.html

 (14) http://college.usatoday.com/2015/04/29/harvard-poll-finds-millennials-have-little-faith-in-government media/

 (15)  http://www.psfk.com/2015/07/zappos-holacracy-millennial-workforce.html

 (16)  http://www.forbes.com/sites/robasghar/2014/01/13/what-millennials-want-in-the-workplace-and-why- you-should-start-giving-it-to-them/

 (17)  https://www.startupgrind.com/blog/fintech-leapfrogs-to-mobile-will-wearables-be-next-1/

 (18)  https://www.mainstreet.com/article/how-millennials-are-fueling-the-robo-advisor-revolution

 (19)  https://business.linkedin.com/content/dam/business/marketing-solutions/global/en_US/campaigns/pdfs/affluent-millennial-research-whitepaper-eng-us.pdf

 (20) http://bit.ly/2985DET

The Adventures of Grandma Cats: Part 1

Grandma Cats catching a ride from a member of the Set Free congregation, Great Falls, MT.

Grandma Cats catching a ride from a member of the Set Free congregation, Great Falls, MT.

I received a call from my sister early one Friday night. It had been a long week full of deadlines at work, errands to run, the house to clean, and attempts to remain connected to loved ones. It had been a long week filled with my life, in other words. So I was not prepared for the life-altering news my sister called with that sunny April evening, when she told me that our grandmother had been diagnosed with end-stage breast cancer so advanced that the doctors were certain it must have already spread to her lymph nodes.

The news was both shocking and expected.  Grandma was 80, so we knew our time with her was drawing to a close. But cancer suddenly being added to the mix (there was no history of the disease in our family) put a whole new spin on things. It was like reading most of a long, suspenseful novel, then, right at the climax, jumping ahead to the last page. I felt cheated, like I had been handed a Cliffs Notes conclusion to my grandmother’s life.

Being faced with the loss of my grandmother made me realize that I had spent my entire life worrying about losing her. It was one of my earliest memories, which meant that I had been anticipating this moment for over three decades. I wasn’t a child given to outbursts of emotion, but whenever we visited and it was time to say goodbye to her, I cried as if heartbroken. She was the conduit to everything I loved best in life.

Grandma returned those feelings, loving us with a passion that was pure – intense and unreasoning – existing simply because we had been manifested into the physical world. And now, realizing that I would soon be cut off from that torrent of affection, one that is unique to the grandparent–grandchild relationship, I felt like the world had tilted slightly, leaving everything confused and off-kilter. That my loss would be at the hands of a vicious, hungry, self-perpetuating disease, which had taken up residence in my grandmother’s body and was gradually siphoning off all her vital energy and resources, enraged me. However, I should have realized that even cancer couldn’t force a final decision upon the seismic event that was my grandmother. She had her own idea of how things were going to happen, and the end of her life was going to unfold on her terms, not those of the cancer. 

The doctor gave her several options for treatment, all of which sounded worse than the cancer itself. They ranged from surgery so invasive it would leave her bedridden for months, unable to use her right arm or even walk to the bathroom, to intensive chemotherapy. Grandma pondered this for several days and then chose an option he hadn’t offered:  Building an addition onto her house. She needed more closet space, she explained to her surgeon, and once the addition was built, she was going to need both her arms to re-organize all her things. God would take care of the rest, she added. (She had been a devout Baptist for years and had a number of long-standing agreements with Jesus.) 

Her doctors expressed shock over her decision and tried in vain to talk her out of it. They weren’t successful, which surprised everyone except our immediate family. We knew exactly what Grandma was doing.  Adding a new room onto her house, as a response to the diagnosis of a terminal disease, was completely in line with how she had lived the rest of her amazing, independent life. She was 80, and that was a lot of years spent choosing her own destiny.

Grandma Cats was born in 1925, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, which was apropos, since she didn’t meander through life, she roared through it, leaving indelible impressions on everyone who crossed her path.  (‘Cats’ isn’t her real name, either, legally speaking. We weren’t sure what was, since she had changed it several times over the years after run-ins with the law. But she had always owned several cats, so Grandma Cats she became.)

Although she only possessed a twelfth-grade education, Grandma Cats had an innate sense of how to run a business and was a self-made millionaire by the time she was 30. She built a nightclub on the plains of Montana during WWII, where gangsters on the lam could get a great steak and see a Broadway-style floor show. Unfortunately, she lost everything when the local sheriff, who was smitten with her flash and charm, proposed marriage. She declined, and he burnt her illegal nightclub to the ground in retaliation.  Undaunted, she then married the son of a local wheat baron – my Grandpa Pat. My grandfather said the first time he saw my grandmother, she was walking down the street in a floor-length purple fur coat, looking just like Ava Gardner. He had never seen anything comparable on the streets of Great Falls, Montana, and drove around the block twice in order to keep looking at her.

Grandma lived through virtually every significant social event of the 20th century, managing to raise two children along the way while providing a home for her mother, siblings and their many offspring. And when my parents married and had my sister and me, there was not a more devoted grandmother on the planet. Or one who was more exciting.

A visit from Grandma Cats was an epic event.  It was as if the circus came to town and took me with it. She would roar up to the front door of my grade school in her platinum-colored Lincoln Continental, pausing just long enough to buckle me into the front seat before pressing down the accelerator with her dainty, high-heeled foot and racing back onto the highway. She was a mere five feet tall, enveloped in a mink stole, awash with diamonds, lustrous raven hair swept up under a rakish ladies fedora, with red lipstick and matching fingernail polish. Looking over at her, I knew:  This was no ordinary grandmother. I took a deep, joyful breath, inhaling the swirl of Chanel No. 5 that typically heralded her arrival moments before she came into sight. It was the essence of Grandma Cats.  It was the scent of adventure.

Keeping one eye on the road, she leaned across the front seat and gave me a big kiss on the cheek, leaving behind a crimson, lip-shaped tattoo.  Looking back at the road and accelerating slightly, she quietly said, “Let’s get some breakfast.” Within minutes we were seated in a café eating hot fudge brownie sundaes. It was 8:30 in the morning and the adventure had begun.

When Grandma came to visit, she never stayed at our house. Instead, she rented a motel room, where my sister and I got to stay with her, which, within minutes, she managed to completely reconfigure to suit her tastes, bringing suitcases filled with her own bedding, small area rugs, cosmetics, and coolers full of snacks. Thus, the motel was transformed into a ‘boudoir,’ where grandma held court and we were her devoted subjects, giving her our rapt attention as she danced, sang, and told stories. It was heaven. We stayed up all night, ate candy, watched whatever we wanted on TV, and luxuriated in the motel’s hot tub – us in our one-piece swimsuits, Grandma in her sleek black suit and ever-present diamonds. It was like vacationing with Elizabeth Taylor at the Motel 6.

In addition to her diamonds, Grandma was never without her fur coats, or her sense of fun. One time, when my sister Stephanie was four and I was seven, we were staying with Grandma at the Holiday Inn, which she had given a touch of Louis XIV by placing homemade quilts on the beds, along with oversized red satin pillows and a small Persian rug. Fresh from the hot tub, Steph and I were wrapped in huge terrycloth robes (also provided by grandma), with our chlorine-drenched hair swathed in towels, looking like two independently wealthy retirees returning from the spa. 

Grandma innocently announced that she was going to take a bath and we should occupy ourselves by watching TV. She then disappeared into the bathroom. A few moments later, we heard a low, growling sound. It gradually grew louder, until Steph and I began to look at each other fearfully. Just then, a figure came around the corner from the bathroom.  For a brief moment, we genuinely believed that a wild creature had somehow gotten into the room with us. Then we realized it was Grandma Cats, crawling across the floor with one of her huge fur coats draped over her, growling like a bear. Laughing and shrieking, we launched ourselves at her, and she proceeded to tickle us until we were fighting for breath. This was a typical evening with Grandma Cats.

Re-constructing tedious reality into exciting new worlds was Grandma’s specialty, and she always invited us to join her. Her universe was filled with characters, many of whom frequently called me on the phone and kept me occupied long enough for my mother to finish cleaning the house. I often spent the afternoon engaged in conversation with celebrities like the Pink Panther (I might be the only person who ever heard him speak.) 

Of course, since we possessed similarly stubborn personalities, it was inevitable that my grandmother and I would occasionally butt heads.  Mostly, though, our conflicts were short-lived contests of will, which Grandma always won. She was too wily and had more stamina. She was also a horrible tease, often threatening to break into song and dance while we were shopping in Woolworth’s Drug Store. I would beg her not to, but that, unfortunately, fueled her enthusiasm. She would follow through on her threat, singing show tunes at the top of her lungs while dancing a little jig and clapping her hands. I was mortified, but the staff of Woolworth’s were nonplussed, having seen my grandmother’s performances on numerous occasions.

My exotic grandmother was a creative genius – a self-taught painter, sculptor and biblical scholar. Her creative abilities did not extend to culinary skills, however.  Bottom line, Grandma hated to cook. But she had a family to feed, so to make things more interesting for herself, she applied the principles of other creative arts to cooking.  For example, she prepared entrees according to color rather than ingredient. Thus, at Thanksgiving, we were treated to Waldorf Salad made with mayonnaise, rather than whipped cream (“they’re both white”).

One summer, my sister and I stayed with our grandparents for seven weeks.  That meant two months of having to provide multiple meals each day for two growing granddaughters. Grandma did the math, then put a plan together to feed us expediently, inexpensively, and with a minimum of preparation required on her part.  It went thus:

Breakfast: N/A because we quickly adapted to her clock, which meant that we stayed up each night until at least 1am watching re-runs of The Gong Show (her favorite). So we did not get up in the morning until at least 10:30a.m. Grandma’s bath and make-up application time typically ran at least an hour, which brought us to lunchtime.  (While she was busy in her dressing room, we often snacked on Brach’s chocolates to tide ourselves over until lunch.)

Lunch: That summer, the 7-11 down the block had a special – three hot dogs for one dollar. Around 1pm, Grandma (freshly made up and looking like Zsa Zsa Gabor in her usual fur coat and high heels) would pile us into the car (the platinum Special Edition Lincoln Continental) with a grocery sack.  We’d drive to the 7-11 and purchase a dozen hot dogs, load them up with condiments, then drive to the nearest park and eat. It never occurred to us what an odd sight it must have been – two little girls seated at a picnic table with an elderly woman in a black mink coat, eating hot dog after hot dog from a brown bag (a mint-condition gold sports coupe parked nearby).

During the hours between lunch and dinner, we would be joined by our grandfather, and the four of us would alternately peruse pawnshops and attempt to convert strangers to Christianity. On a good day, Grandpa would secure a deal on pawned jewelry while Grandma talked the proprietor into praying with her right there in the store. My sister and I would stand awkwardly nearby, bowing our heads in acknowledgement of the prayer being orated next to the dusty cash register, while covertly glancing around the shop.  Its rows of televisions, kitchen appliances, and leather saddles (appropriated from down-on-their-luck cowboys) beckoned us, and we couldn’t wait for the prayer to end, freeing us to roam the shop and study the memorabilia from the lives of the pawn shop’s disparate clientele.

After visiting several pawnshops, handing out religious literature to prostitutes, and cruising Main Street, it was time for dinner. Prior to our arrival, Grandma had purchased a case of mushroom soup from a discount warehouse (“what child doesn’t like mushroom soup?”) (We didn’t.) Thus, our usual evening meal consisted of breakfast sausages slathered in apple sauce (cooked by 8-year old me).

My mother said when we first returned home at the end of that summer, Steph and I resembled breakfast sausages ourselves, so bloated and swollen were we from our summer of Jimmy Dean products. We also talked like a couple of faith healers (“can I get an amen?”), complained about being made to arise before 11am, and greeted any new household purchase with the claim that it could have been obtained much less expensively through proper negotiations with a pawn broker.

My grandmother’s ability to amaze me didn’t end with my childhood.  Several years ago, at the age of 33, I visited her and my grandfather.  Knowing that their health was declining and their energy was low, I wanted to do whatever it took to make them happy. This led to an agreement to attend Sunday church services with them.  While driving there on that sleepy Sunday morning in August, my grandmother off-handedly remarked that they had recently begun attending a new church.  The fact that it was located downtown in a corner room of the old Woolworth’s building should have caught my attention. But it was 8am on Sunday morning and I wasn’t fully awake.

That changed, however, when we pulled into the parking lot of Woolworth’s and parked next to a row of 30 Harley Davidson motorcycles. We were greeted by the sight of uber-sized men in full biker regalia – leather chaps and vests, fringe, boots, chains, tattoos everywhere, standing near the line of beautiful, high-end Harley’s. There was a sign next to the motorcycles that announced:  “Set Free Ministries Loading and Unloading Zone.  JESUS ROCKS!”  

We got out of the car and Grandma Cats calmly walked toward the doorway of the ‘church’ and was greeted warmly by the bikers. Several of them wore black leather vests with white lettering on the back that said:  “Servant of Jesus.”

The building itself was filled with cracked walls and dirt-caked floors.  Upon entering the doorway, we were immediately faced with a huge free-hand mural, which appeared to be Jesus Christ. Oddly, Jesus bore a strong similarity to magician Doug Henning and had a slightly medicated expression on his face (including a mouth eerily reminiscent of Aerosmith’s Stephen Tyler). Below Jesus, the words “WARNING!  YOU ARE ABOUT TO ENTER A ZONE THAT WILL CHALLENGE YOUR TRADITIONS” were painted on the wall.   

We walked up the four flights of stairs leading to the room where services were held. When we reached the top, we were greeted by a mountain of a man dressed from head to toe in leather (he was about 6/5” tall, probably weighing over 400 pounds), and a headband that announced “JESUS IS THE MAN!” Grandma introduced him as ‘Scooter,’ the assistant to Pastor J.T.  (Grandma later described Scooter as a “teddy bear.” I told her that I agreed. He was a big, cuddly teddy bear with a spiked dog collar around his neck and a tattoo of a coffin on his bicep.)

Scooter, in turn, introduced me to Pastor J.T., also a biker, with a shaved head and thick, black handlebar mustache. He could easily pass for Jesse Ventura’s brother. Ready for Sunday service, Pastor J.T. wore a black t-shirt, jeans with silver studs, and a huge Harley Davidson belt buckle attached to a Navajo multi-colored belt.  An R&B band played in the front of the room, led by a woman in a leather vest with spiked brown hair.  The songs were Christian-themed, with a twist of rock ‘n’ roll, and the lyrics were projected onto a screen at the front of the room from a sound-table in the back.

I stood next to a window and watched as Grandma Cats circulated through the room.  It was obvious that everyone knew her, and she disappeared from sight as the crowd around her grew and she was enveloped by people wanting a hug, to shake her hand, or just talk about the struggles they had endured since last Sunday’s church service.  She gave each person her full attention, offering encouragement and sympathy.  Although they addressed her as “Mrs. Rice,” it was obvious that everyone at the Set Free Ministries thought of her as “Grandma Cats.”

After several minutes of socializing and listening to the funky hymns, Pastor J.T. began the service by explaining that he had just gotten back from a week at Sturgis, where he and a group of bikers from the church had gone to ‘minister’ to the Sturgis attendees.  His whole family had accompanied him, including his wife and daughters. (Scooter had apparently fun afoul of the law while there, but had been bailed out in time to return to Great Falls for church.)

Wide-eyed, I continued to glance around the room at the ‘congregation,’ which was a heartbreaking mixture of people who were obviously used to living ‘off the grid’ of society. Noticing my shock, my grandmother quietly explained that a number of them were part of an early-release program from prison. She felt called to offer her assistance, she said, since they were among the most needy in Great Falls. Listening to her, I absentmindedly smiled at a man who had been looking my way ever since we entered the church.  Noticing my glance, Grandma nonchalantly whispered, “Don’t go anywhere with him. He’s a registered sex offender.”  My enthusiasm for her altruistic project waned slightly (even though I hadn’t actually been formulating plans to interact with the gentleman apparently facing prison time for sexual misconduct).

The Set Free service ended much too quickly, and we returned to my grandparent’s house. Bought just after WWII, it is a traditional-looking, three-story homestead designed to accommodate several generations under one roof. It’s also another expression of my grandmother’s creativity.  When she bought the property, it was a dry, barren lot.  In the forty years that she has lived there, she has transformed the yard into an oasis of pine trees, ferns, and roses. And although the house is flanked by an alley, a half-way house, and the headquarters of a local meth dealer (Grandma is on first-name terms with all of these people, despite our pleas that she refrain from chatting with them while outside watering the lawn), once you step through the gate into the back yard, all of that ceases to exist. The lush foliage deflects all sound from the neighborhood, and there is a peaceful, muted feeling. 

During the summer, at sunset, Grandma waters all the plants, including the branches of the tall pine trees, making everything glisten in the setting sun and filling the yard with the rich, vibrant scent of a forest.  (Then she returns to the kitchen, where my grandfather has installed a police scanner, and monitors the activity around Great Falls.  She’s not worried; she just likes to know what the neighbors are up to.)

The interior of the house has the same otherworldly aura as the back yard. Over the years, my grandparents have accumulated a vast collection of antiques, ranging from ornate cherrywood coffee tables with marble tops, to oil paintings, crystal chandeliers, and Persian rugs.  Every corner of every room is filled with this collection, and consequently, the main floor of the house has the distinct feel of a period piece. To preserve the antiques, heavy velvet drapes cover every window (I don’t recall them ever being opened and the sunlight being allowed in during my lifetime), and wrought iron bars have been installed in the main floor windows (in response to the growing methamphetamine presence in the neighborhood).  

The sealed windows and thick, velvet drapes seem to absorb all sound, and the house feels hushed and timeless.  In recent years, however, an additional sound has begun to pervade the quiet. I was first awakened by it one night at 2:30a.m. while visiting my grandparents. I was jolted to consciousness by a disembodied, mechanizedvoice that seemed to emanate from the heat vent in the floor. My heart pounding, I struggled to become fully awake. As I lay in bed, curled up under the covers and peering fearfully through the darkness, I heard it again, a small, insistent voice crying “DOMINOS!!” This excited proclamation was immediately followed by the sound of bells and whistles (what had awakened me in the first place), giving my darkened bedroom the ambience of a Las Vegas casino. 

The source of the sound was my Uncle Merl (Grandma Cats’ son), who had recently returned to Great Falls after years of meandering across the United States.  The world hadn’t been kind to him, and at 50 years of age he had migrated back to my grandparent’s basement. With the addition of internet access in his quarters downstairs (including online gaming like “DOMINOS!”), he was living a peaceful, cocooned existence.  Despite the extra work that a middle-aged dependent (who wore only bib overalls and sported a waist-length, gray beard) created for her, Grandma was relieved to have him back home. It was less stressful than worrying that he’d meet his demise while hitchhiking in Memphis or playing pool in Reno. 

That was two years ago. When I talk to her on the phone now, while she sits in her ‘office bed,’ I’m overwhelmed by her bravery. (She has two beds. One is a king-sized bed covered with books, folders, notepads, and multiple Bibles.  This bed - her office bed - is used for research and other projects during her waking hours. Her ‘sleeping bed’ is a small, single bedstead in her dressing room. It is surrounded by boxes of clothes and knickknacks – so many that Grandma doesn’t even know exactly what’s in them – a stockpiling habit left over from the Great Depression.) The ever-present lump in her breast is a constant reminder that she will never be physically whole again, and she resents it.

Her energy is low – for the first time in her life, she tells me with quiet frustration.  But even though her body is weak, her mind still functions with the same quick intensity it always has. The clarity of her thoughts is both a blessing and a curse.  Since she has lived most of her life by her wits (they were her most valuable commodity), one of Grandma’s biggest fears has been that she would become mentally incapacitated and therefore unable to care for herself and her family. Fortunately, that never happened. She thinks with the same alacrity as always. The downside is that since her body can no longer keep up with her mind, she lies in bed resting, while her mind spins with thoughts, concocting worries and fears.

To deal with her anxiety, earlier this year she took up needlepoint. And Waylon Jennings. She sits in bed, sewing purple satin pillows, covering them with colorful embroidery patterns, while listening to Waylon’s music. He’s a recent discovery – Waylon – and Grandpa searched local pawnshops until he found a boxed set offering his complete body of work. Considering that Grandma gave up listening to contemporary music thirty years ago, on the grounds that it was the soundtrack of a sinful life, we all find her sudden devotion to Waylon a bid odd, but charming. There is something in his music, possibly the tales of loss and redemption, that appeals to her.

There she lounges, in her monstrous office bed that sits four feet off the floor (which she ascends with the help of a footstool, as if she’s climbing into the cockpit of a F-16 fighter jet), sewing purple satin pillows and listening to “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”  She has requested that we refer to this as “Grandma’s Waylon Jennings Period,” after she passes.

She talks of passing more frequently now, with a tone of brave resignation. (She has also started referring to her breasts as “paps,” explaining that that’s what they’re called in the Bible, then giggling.)  The addition is almost finished, completing her ‘suite’ of rooms, and she has requested that my mother, sister and I each visit her in turns and stay with her in the suite.  She wants one-on-one time with us, she explains, because she needs help organizing all her things (the seemingly endless supply of boxes that surround her sleeping bed and contain items like canvas tennis shoes and colored bandanas that she wears wrapped around her head, causing her to look like a tiny, wrinkled gangsta rap artist).  But we all know it’s really because she wants to say goodbye to each of us alone.

Her characteristic quirky spirit hasn’t departed, though.  Last week I received a money order in the mail for $250.00.  It was from Grandma and arrived with the dictate that the money be used to purchase a juicer. I called my mother and sister, and they had each received similar money orders and the instruction that they were to begin “juicing everything.”  Turns out that Grandma, in an effort to deal with her cancer holistically, had discovered some sort of macrobiotic diet and had decided that the entire family should follow it.  “Juice all your food from now on,” she told me, in a tone that left no room for an argument.  “Everything?” I asked doubtfully. “Everything,” she declared firmly. “I juiced a beet this morning. It was great.” 

Interesting advice from someone who has subsisted on a steady diet of processed sugar and fundamentalism for the last 40 years, I thought, but I began shopping for a juicer.  I also booked my plane ticket for what may be my last visit to Big Sky Country. I am anxious for the time with my Grandmother, in the special womb-like space she has created for us. I anticipate a week spent in her dressing room -  organizing hundreds of identical K-Mart t-shirts, numerous pairs of black Wrangler jeans, and turquoise jewelry heavy enough to require the neck muscles of a Clydesdale to wear it without injury. It will be an odd but, I hope, comforting way of saying goodbye – for now – to the person who delayed her departure for several decades so that we could be certain of her feelings for us. 

Slacks & Slackers: A guide to understanding GenX

Slacks.jpg

I’m a member of GenX. Nobody talks about us much, because we’re a small group sandwiched between the Baby Boomers and Millennials. That’s ok. We don’t tend to seek the spotlight. However, there is a stereotype that has persisted for far too long, and I’d like to address it now:

Despite what society has claimed, we are neither cynical, nor slackers.

If you disagree, I have one word for you: Slacks. Not ‘slackers’. Slacks.

GenX grew up during “The Age of Dockers,” and believe me, it is nearly impossible to be either cynical or a slacker when you’re cocooned within a layer of wrinkle-resistant khaki. In fact, it’s hard to be anything but compliant and…careful.

The impact of Dockers on GenX was huge. It resonated throughout culture and our lives. As evidence, consider this anecdote from my own life:

It was the fall of 1991. I was a senior in college, and all was right in my world. I had great friends, a wonderful boyfriend, and I was going to graduate in the spring.

Then, the unthinkable happened.

I returned from Thanksgiving break to find that my boyfriend’s wardrobe had grown exponentially. It now included ten pairs of Docker’s pants. He had, he informed me, gone shopping over the break with his father, who insisted that a lack of Dockers indicated an inability to cross the threshold to manhood. Thus, one week later, I was surrounded by pleats.

This was a real loss of innocence for me. Until that day, I had not realized there were so many shades of beige. And all of them were represented, along with hues of gray, olive, black and blue, in my boyfriend’s new attire. In fact, the Dockers were so plentiful, they seemed to demand their own descriptor. Were they an oevre of pants? A flight of Dockers? I wasn’t sure, but one thing was clear: The dress code for our relationship had become business casual.

We broke up soon after.

Along with the impact of Dockers, there’s something else that influenced the development of GenX:

Everything around us blew up. EVERYHING. Literally and figuratively. All the time.

The Challenger Space Shuttle? Blew up.

The Cold War? Constantly threatened to blow up. (Remember bomb drills under our desks?)

AIDS? Blew up sex.

MTV? Blew up how music was consumed (but in a good way).

The divorce of everyone’s parents? Blew up their lives. And ours. Repeatedly.

The re-marriage of everyone’s parents? Blew up our lives again.

The economy? It has blown up constantly, starting when we were in junior high (and our parents lost their jobs), and continuing today.

As a result, GenX-ers learned very quickly to watch our step, because our world has been a minefield, and we’ve experienced some pretty big explosions. Fortunately, our Dockers helped instill civility and self-sufficiency in our demeanor. We are, generally speaking, polite, focused problem-solvers.

Another way of saying this:

We’re not slackers.

We’re not cynical.

We’re demolition recovery experts, and we’re just trying to stay out of the hot zone.

Maria Keller: Helping at-risk children discover the joy of reading

Maria Keller - Founder of Reed Indeed  (Source: Sun Sailor)

Maria Keller - Founder of Reed Indeed  (Source: Sun Sailor)

What do you get when you combine a passion for reading, empathy for those less fortunate than yourself, and awareness that you’re part of a global community? You get Maria Keller, a 14-year old member of GenerationZ. She’s on a mission to provide books for children who don’t have access to them, and a lot of people are starting to take notice, including CNN, which named her one of its "Young Heroes" in 2014. 

Maria started pursuing her goal when she was only eight years old. She founded Read Indeed,  a non-profit that gathers and distributes books to at-risk children. Six years later, Read Indeed’s accomplishments include the words “global” and “millions.” And Maria is just getting started! By the time she turns 18, she intends to provide books to children in “every state in the U.S. and every country in the world!”


Maria embodies so many of the wonderful qualities attributed to GenerationZ. She’s compassionate, altruistic, practical, a self-starter and, obviously, a talented problem-solver. But don’t take my word for it. Here are Maria’s answers, in her own words, to some questions I recently posed about her generation, her goals, and how she has managed, at such a young age, to provide assistance to so many of her peers:


Read Indeed seems to be very organized. How did you create your infrastructure (the Board of Directors, Youth Advisory Council, individuals who help with various tasks, warehouse, etc.)?

Frankly, I learned along the way what would work to keep everything organized and working well. Plus my parents have helped in terms of the legality issues of a 501c3. I have a lot of young kids/teens who want to help, so I created a youth board to give some of them a bigger voice in the organization. The adult board is needed to help give me direction and brainstorm new ideas to grow Read Indeed.


Was there a moment - or a particular book you were reading - that made you say:  “I need to provide books to other kids.” If so, what was it about that book that inspired you? 

I've always loved to read. And I realized when I was in 3rd grade that some kids didn't read as much as me. I would try and stay in from recess so that I could read on the beanbag chairs in my classroom. Not a lot of kids wanted to do that. I went to a grade school where most kids had plenty of books in their homes, so when I learned there were a lot of kids in low income neighborhoods who had never owned a book or had a bedtime story read to them, I was simply amazed and thought that it simply wasn't fair. I began researching and learned how important reading is in terms of a child's success in school. When I learned this, I knew I needed to do something about this issue. 


 

Have you done much public speaking? Who invites you the most?

I have done quite a bit of public speaking. I speak at different schools about the importance of reading to kids, and I've spoken at churches, and community groups such at Rotary Club meetings, etc. 

 

 Tell me about the experience of sending books to kids in other countries. For example, how do you identify the people you send books to outside the U.S.?

Typically we receive applications from groups/organizations in need of books. Based on those applications, I determine the validity of the organization and their great need of books. Because shipping is so unbelievably expensive, I've tried to partner with different groups, piggybacking on their shipment of goods, to get the books to these groups. Sometimes we have to say 'no' simply because it is too expensive to ship if we don't have a partner in their region.

 

How many books do you need to meet your goal of contributing to every state and every country by the time you are 18?

I'm striving for a next goal of 2 million books. It's not so much about how many books, but the appropriate books. Some organizations only request 1 book per child, others want more.   

 

You clearly have a global vision for Read Indeed. What’s the connection you feel to children in other countries? 

The literacy rate is extraordinarily poor in many nations. I would love to help connect these children to books. Many of these kids suffer unbearable living situations, hindering their ability to go to school. Books can help these children find an escape and better their lives.   

 

A lot of people want to create something like Read Indeed, but might not know how to get started. What advice would you give them?

Take it slow. Do your research. And don't be afraid to ask for help. So many people in this world are good, kind, giving people and will be willing to help in whatever way they can. The key is to ask.

 

Tell me about your generation. What kind of impact do they want to have on the world? What kind of lives do you think they want to live? What do you think they feel are the biggest challenges that need solving in the world? 

I see a lot of my peers at Orono High School interested in giving back to others. They are sincere about doing so. They aren't doing it to get another line item on their college resume. They truly see the world as a place that needs our help. We are the generation that can truly make an impact on this world. 


If people want to get involved with Reed Indeed, what should they do?

 We are always in need of monetary donations to help buy brand new books for kids. They can also hold gently used book drives in their communities. If they don't live in the Twin Cities, I can help them find organizations in their own communities that need the books. 


What's the best (most positive) feedback you've gotten from someone who has received books from Reed Indeed?

 I receive lots of thank you notes from children who receive books. One little girl wrote: "I want to be just like you when I grow up." It doesn't get much more honorable than that.

So true.

Links to articles and resources about Millennials and Generation Z

"Millennials in the Workplace: Hungry for Office Perks or Something More?" Snack Nation: Healthier Snacks Delivered   http://bit.ly/1zt5DGe

 

"Millennials thinking outside the cubicle"  12/14/14  Star Tribune  http://strib.mn/1DACgJ2

 

"Debunking the Workplace Generation Conflict Gap Myth Once and For All" 11/16/14  Fast Company  http://f-st.co/Wradj7l

 

MiLLENNial Magazine:  The Life Magazine of this era. Featuring global Millennials creating change. http://millennialmagazine.com/

 

"What Everyone Gets Wrong About Millennials and Home Buying"  11/12/14  Time    ti.me/14egkUd 

 

"Next Year Millennials Will Become the Majority of the Workforce. What Does that Mean for Employee Training?"  11/11/2014  Panopto http://bit.ly/1ECxaJm

 

"Millennials will account for 75% of workforce by 2025 but many employers still stuck in analogue mode says Telefonica"  11/11/14  The Drum Modern Marketing  http://bit.ly/1wgPwtd

 

MTV tries to conquer YouTube and engage Millennials and GenerationZ with its first original YouTube channel, 'Braless'.  11/5/2014 http://bit.ly/1q8sfHB 

 

“Millennials will become the majority in the workforce in 2015. Is your company ready?”
11/4/14  Co.Exist.com  http://bit.ly/1qnpz9k

 

"Marriott Hotels Woos Millennials with Mobile Apps and Wireless Charging"  11/2/14 Forbes.com  http://linkis.com/flip.it/52Y5A

 

Check out the results of Fusion's massive poll of Millennials on election issues 10/9/14 Fusion.net  http://fus.in/109TV7Q 

 

“Festivals are becoming the national pastime for Americas Millennials”
9/28/14 Quartz.com  http://bit.ly/1vT0zdE

 

Generation Z:  Creating world-changing innovations by the age of...11??                         9/25/14  The Globe and Mail    http://bit.ly/1COYPWB

 

"African Millennials are reminding the world how to use social media to build communities around specific interests and challenges" 
9/14/14  Africonnection  http://bit.ly/1y6aEJ5 

 

"Generations Are an Invention - Here's how they came to be" 
9/11/14  The Atlantic  http://theatln.tc/1qPQs7J

 

"China's Millennials:  How the East will win"
9/4/14 How cool brands stay hot  http://bit.ly/1qQwNpq

 

"Hollywood's Old-Time Star Makers Are Swooping In on YouTube's Party"  
9/1/14  The New York Times http://nyti.ms/1t4Noqn

 

"Aeropostale Rebrands to Meet Millennial Needs" 7/23/14 ChelseaKrost.com  http://linkis.com/dld.bz/MS6AC

 

“39 of the most interesting facts about Generation Z”
7/17/14  DanSchwabel.com  http://bit.ly/1rOEfDV

 

“How Generation X will save the world”
4/10/14  Scholars and Rogues http://bit.ly/1hluOoX

 

"She was 14 years old when she invented this machine"  
2/14/14 The Better India  http://bit.ly/1n6SrQM

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are Millennials and GenZ changing advertising? Yes!

I guest lectured at St. Cloud State University recently and and was asked this question:

Can advertising be a win-win for business and consumers?

This presentation is my response. (Hint: My answer is, Yes! Especially with the kinds of changes the Millennials and GenerationZ are driving!)

Several videos were included in the original Keynote version. Here is a list of links to them and explanations of which slides they correspond to:

Video #1 plays after Slide 13 ('Because it looks like this.') 
http://vimeo.com/89527215 

Video #2 plays after Slide 30 ('Updated in 2006.') 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hibyAJOSW8U 

Video #3 plays after Slide 40 ('TOMS Shoes.') 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MV3HWQHl1s 

Video #4 plays after Slide 41 ('Soap Box Soaps.') 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjZnNK4PQBk 

Video # 5 plays after Slide 54 ('Generation Z advertisements will look like.') 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPDmrZDpmqQ

Vaishali Gandhi: Empowering India's female artisans

A 2009 participant of Jagriti Yatra,a 15-day train journey that takes young leaders 8,000 kilometers across across India to learn about enterprise and infrastructure, Vaishali Gandhi was born and grew up in Mumbai. 

Although her path and focus are unique, much of what Vaishali shared with me regarding her desire to create a life and profession founded on creating positive change mirrored what I’ve heard from every global Millennial I’ve interviewed over the last year:

“After graduation, I was overwhelmed with a desire to find meaning in my life.”

Instead of sitting around and waiting for a meaningful path to identify itself, Vaishali immediately took steps to find it.

“I signed up for volunteering with a not-for-profit in rural India, where I saw first-hand the difficulties faced by artisans.”

As a college student, she had studied textile design. Her next step was to pursue a MBA in Social Entrepreneurship and to also join Jagriti Yatra, which turned out to be a fortuitous decision, because, "It forced us to think like entrepreneurs."

It was during a research project with two other students that her aspirations and experience truly aligned, and Srujna (which means “to create new energy”) was born, with a mission to create communities of economically empowered women across India, through self-employment.

                            Source:  TheBetterIndia.com

                            Source:  TheBetterIndia.com

These kinds of opportunities are vitally important for the women of India, as Kalpana Sankar, a United Nations consultant for gender and microfinance issues explains:

"Women form the backbone of any society, but despite recent economic progress, they still face a lot of challenges in Indian society.

Six decades after independence, and after five decades of planned development, the position of women has worsened considerably in every sphere with a declining gender ratio, a declining economic participation rate and growing gaps in life expectancy and mortality rates between men and women."

Indian women are further impacted by a wage gap. A survey by India's National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) found that the average daily earnings for male workers are Rs 249 ($4.05 USD), compared to only Rs 156 ($2.54 USD) for women. 

This lack of equality often leads to abuse. According to a report by Swayam, a women's rights organization committed to ending violence against women and children in India, one in every two Indian women faces violence of many types, including physical, sexual, psychological and/or economic.

Observing that women face these challenges despite playing vital role in India’s economy, Vaishali started working with a group of 30 women, focusing her efforts on teaching jewelry production. Eventually, the members knew enough about jewelry making and marketing that they were able to launch a business. Today, their products are sold through exhibitions and orders.

With this success, Vaishali knew she had found her path:

“The challenge for most women, especially from low socio economic backgrounds, is to opt for 9-5 jobs, going out of their community for working or choosing a full time employment option."

Fortunately, Vaishali and her Srujna team-mates are helping to solve this by offering craft skills training, as well as instruction in how to run a viable business. They offer women an opportunity to opt for self-employment, i.e. working from their homes/communities at a time that is suitable to them. They also provide a market connect initiative where women are given opportunities to sell their products at exhibitions across India in venues such as corporate campuses and universities.

women empowerment 3.JPG

Enthusiasm and recognition for Srujna’s efforts has grown quickly and intensely. With a solid roster of corporate sponsors and a rapidly-accumulating series of international awards, the non-profit is on track to create widespread, scalable change for vulnerable women in India, which, in turn, could have a positive economic impact on the whole country.

 

 

 

Gunvant Jain: Starting an education revolution in India

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Jagriti Yatra, a train journey that takes place in India every year. Its purpose is to gather youth (Millennials and soon, GenZ) who aspire to create positive social change and expose them to problems that need solving, communities that need help, and experts who can provide guidance and insight.

Many of the Jagriti Yatra participants (200 so far!) have gone on to launch businesses and non-profits that are strengthening India’s economy and social infrastructure. Recently, I connected with two of them: Gunvant Jain and Vaishali Gandhi.

Gunvant Jain, founder of Shikshalaya

Gunvant Jain, founder of Shikshalaya

An “engineer by profession and educator by passion,” Gunvant was a college student when he first started thinking about the kind of purposeful life he wanted to build:

“During my final year of college, I saw a common trend among my peers. Everyone was losing interest in their jobs and their lives were missing the passion they used to have. They didn’t just want jobs. They wanted to go out into the world and get some fresh air and meet some new people. That’s why I joined Jagriti Yatra. I realized that we [humans and society] are in the middle of a massive transformation across all the dimensions of life.”

After graduating from college, Gunvant joined Teach for India, which provided the opportunity to consult with a start-up in secondary education. As a result, he gained an understanding of a problem that often goes un-noticed in the larger context of improving education in India: Even "so-called comparative better schools or high-end schools" often fall into the trap of rote learning, creating pressure for the students, which extends to their parents and families. It also means that wealthy students are not taught critical thinking and creative problem-solving. That's obviously a disadvantage for those students, who miss out on the creative problem-solving aspects of critical thinking. Perhaps just as problematic, since they are wealthy and will likely become the job-creators of the future, it's an even bigger problem for India's long-term social and economic development.

Simply stated, it means that many of the people likely to become India's next leaders may be at an intellectual disadvantage when it comes to building India's future. As Gunvant explained to me:

"The well-empowered class of society, the financially well-off, eventually end up compromising their creative and critical thinking. As a result, the class of society who can create employment opportunities become opportunity consumers."

This realization, along with his participation in a Jagriti Yatra journey, his work with Teach for India, as well as his experience with the education start-up, led Gunvant to create Shikshalaya, an "after school learning center" that serves middle income students who attend more affluent schools.

Shikshalaya provides academic support to higher primary and secondary grades, and its curriculum is structured holistically, blending activities, technology, practice and classroom sessions. Consequently, students are able to play a very active role in their learning. Programs are also available for parents, to help them understand how to support their children’s pursuit of education during the stressful years of childhood and adolescence.

Members of the Shikshalaya learning community.

Members of the Shikshalaya learning community.

As Gunvant explained, it’s a model built to solve 21st century challenges faced by teenagers, especially in the context of education and overall personal development:

“The way in which the academia is taught today isn’t necessarily keeping pace with the challenges that are emerging. But if you teach children to think critically by focusing on fundamentals, they will always be looking for solutions based on understanding, instead of just memorizing information and reciting answers. That’s important, because the bar of expectations rising so quickly that answers become meaningless without an understanding of the problems. At Shikshalaya, we teach students how to think simply by focusing on fundamentals.

If Gunvant's vision is successful, if Shikshalaya produces the kind of forward-thinking students he envisions, and Shikshalaya's after school model turns out to be replicable, he could help drive a change in the way that after school educational assistance is provided, which is a major topic of discussion in India.

Gunvant is 28, by the way.

 

 

A world in motion, and Africa is setting the pace.

I talk a lot about how the world is re-making itself. As I study the changes that are occurring, I’m constantly reminded that the world outside the U.S. is vast. There are significant pockets of activity going on that don’t necessarily receive a lot of attention in the U.S., yet they are starting to define what civilization is going to look like in the very near future. 

This thought has crossed my mind a lot during the current World Cup tournament. It's watched globally by billions, so clearly holds great cultural significance to many people around the world, yet only a third of Americans tune in. It's an odd sort of disconnect, and I was reminded of it during several recent interviews I did with global Millennials, in which I encountered more signs of significant (and positive) change taking place around the world that might not be very apparent to some in North America.

This spring, a new web series called “An African City” made its debut. Created by Nicole Amarteifio, a Ghanian writer, film-maker and international development expert, the series is set in Ghana and follows the lives of five intelligent, sophisticated young women who return to their hometown of Accra after living abroad. 

I recently connected with Esosa E, one of the lead actresses, and we chatted about her involvement in the series and other topics. In addition to being an actress, Esosa is a writer, director, artist, fashion designer and vegan blogger (she’s also pursuing a master’s degree!). Her community of friends and collaborators spans the globe, so I asked for her perspective on what it means to be a global citizen – specifically, a global millennial. 

Esosa E

Esosa E

“Traveling and having the experience of being  ‘other’ [non-local] is so important, because you realize that wherever you are, I am that. I have a very clear understanding that anything that happens anywhere in the world can affect me, or is related to me. The Internet and the communication that happens nowadays also breaks down the idea that I can pretend I’m in my own little bubble. You become aware of the welfare of worldwide citizens.” 

Esosa also emphasized the importance of storytelling as a tool to create empathy and galvanize global communities around issues and goals.

“Storytelling is so powerful. It can change the way you see everything. For example, I was studying fashion design and had an epiphany: I was concerned with how different people, especially black people, were portrayed in the media. Globally and being part of the African Diaspora, there are so many stories that haven’t yet been told. I want to blow the roof off things and show different aspects of Africa and not continue to be stereotyped. I want to show humans. All sides.”

Esosa’s already-impressive body of work, combined with her future goal of founding a film studio that produces films that accurately depict all aspects of African culture make it obvious that she will have an impact on the world. 

So, I started this post by mentioning large-scale changes that might not be on the radar of some Americans. As a result of my conversation with Esosa, I came across one:

Nigeria is now the world’s 2nd largest film industry! Known as ‘Nollywood’, the film community in Nigeria recently surpassed Hollywood to land in the #2 spot behind India (Bollywood)! 

It's yet another sign of the exciting growth that's happening in Africa, which is home to 7 of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world. Many African nations are also experiencing incredible population growth, which means that over one-third of the world’s population will be African by the year 2100!

There is a lot of activity in the world right now, and if we pay attention to the stories being told by new voices - like Esosa E and Nicole Amarteifio - we'll become more aware of a new human narrative that is being crafted. It's a good one. 

Coming up next: Interviews with two more global millennials, one of whom recently launched a project that could positively impact 200 million people. Seriously. 

Wait. Did we just discover the meaning of life?

socialentrepreneur.jpg

“We are in the middle of a massive transformation." 

“We are creating our own reality.”

“I was overwhelmed with a desire to find meaning in my life.”

Source: Every Millennial I’ve interviewed in the last 9 months.

 

I started this blog almost a year ago, because I believe a major human shift is taking place, and that it’s being accelerated by the Millennial generation. Since then, I’ve spoken with Millennials from the U.S., India, Europe and Africa, and while they were unique individuals, each of them expressed the same sentiment:

They want their lives to have purpose.

Research indicates this sentiment is shared by Millennials everywhere. For example, in 2011, a report was commissioned by the Career Advisory Board. It found that what Millennials most want from their career is a sense of meaning, which the study defined as “the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value and impact.”  

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This is a significant change from studies several years ago. At that time, Millennials listed happiness as their top priority. Since then, as a result of events like the Great Recession, they’ve decided that they are more interested in building an equitable world.

Sociologists say that prioritizing meaning over happiness is significant, because happiness is self-oriented, while meaning is other-oriented. So, Millennials deciding to focus their energy on meaning instead of happiness means the biggest generation in history has decided to dedicate itself to helping others. And they reached that decision in a very short timespan!

This generational shift is awe-inspiring on its own, but when considered in the context of some new research, it starts to look like the sign of an even more significant universal change.

Last month, the results of a study were announced in Psychological Science. Two professors, Patrick Hill and Nicholas Turiano, expanded on earlier studies which found that having a purpose in life lowers the risk of mortality. The research by Hill and Turiano analyzed data from over 6,000 participants who were  followed for 14 years. At the end of their study, they concluded that having a purpose does increase your lifespan, but more important, the increase occurs no matter how old you are when you discover your purpose!

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In other words, discovering a purpose (regardless of how old you are when you make the discovery) triggers a kind of re-set button that adds more time to your life clock.

Wow.

The bottom line:

The largest population in history has decided to pursue lives of meaning, which will be accomplished by focusing their efforts on making life better for others.

Researchers have discovered that incorporating meaning into your life – no matter how old you are – helps you live longer.

So…did scientists and Millennials just discover a new formula for living longer and more satisfying lives?

If so, wouldn’t that constitute an evolutionary advancement?

Humans. We definitely seem to be having a moment.

 

Global Poverty Project: Ending extreme poverty in one generation

Are you a Global Citizen?  If you believe in creating a world in which disparity, especially economic, is unacceptable, you might be a global citizen. 

Are you a global citizen?

Disparity is rampant, and various forms have contributed to one of the biggest crises facing humanity today: Extreme poverty. Defined as living on US $1.25 a day, one in five people around the world – or 20% of the Earth’s population – is living in extreme poverty. 

Fortunately, many dedicated people, a lot of them Millennials, are working to find a solution. I had the opportunity to speak with one of them recently, and what she shared convinced me that the end of extreme poverty is on the (near) horizon.

Justine Lucas is the U.S. Country Director for the Global Poverty Project, an international education and advocacy organization dedicated to eliminating extreme poverty. She joined the the team two and a half years ago and has helped establish the group’s presence in the U.S. Her interest in helping others create change began early in life:

Justine Lucas

Justine Lucas

“I’ve always been a campaigner at heart, and I realized from an early age that your voice matters."

Justine attended NYU for her undergraduate and graduate studies, beginning her college career just two weeks before 9/11. After college, she traveled extensively and gained experience working for various nonprofits domestically and internationally. She engaged in human rights work in Africa by living in Cameroon for a year while working for an NGO, an "incredible, intense experience that really ignited my passion for these issues.”

Upon returning to the U.S., Justine encountered the Global Poverty Project, which was new to the country, and realized it was exactly the opportunity she was looking for:

“It was like one of those light bulbs went off. I applied in five minutes, went through two months of interviews, and was the second hire in the U.S. I just knew this was right role for me.”

Since joining the Global Poverty Project team, Justine has helped establish a presence in the U.S, as the organization also continues rapidly expanding around the world.

The Global Poverty Project was founded in 2008 by two Australian Millennials, Hugh Evans and Simon Moss, who wanted to build a movement of people motivated to take action and create a world without extreme poverty.

 

Hugh Evans

Hugh Evans

To say the Global Poverty Project has been successful is a major understatement. It’s already become one of the biggest youth movements in history! In the United States, it’s best known for the Global Citizen Festival, a “marathon musical event” held in New York City’s Central Park that has featured performances by artists like Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and John Mayer. Functioning as a platform to raise awareness in addition to being a concert, the Global Citizen Festival has been very successful in inspiring action and influencing policy change.

While the Global Poverty Project is a Millennial-founded and Millennial-led organization, it’s extremely inclusive, encouraging collaboration across geography, cultures and even across generations. Retirees have participated in letter-writing campaigns. GenX mothers have banded together to address issues that will impact their children (and to create ‘teachable moments’). There’s room for everyone in the Global Poverty Project, Justine told me, and advances in technology have created opportunities for anyone, anywhere to identify challenges, raise awareness about them, and drive what are incredibly sweeping changes:

Justine also shared that in addition to sponsoring events and enabling collaborations, the Global Poverty Project raises awareness and grows support by telling stories, but telling them in a very specific way:

“We place priority on producing high quality content and focus a lot of attention on ‘how do you tell the story’. We want to demonstrate that incredible progress has been made and is possible. We try to tell stories of individuals. Ultimately, we’re trying to connect people to the issues in a real way. To inspire them.”

Given that extreme global poverty is on track to be eliminated by 2030 (within one generation, in other words), it would appear that the Global Poverty Project is on to something. I’m sure their growing international movement of grassroots activists, and the communities benefiting from their efforts, would agree. 

A lot of rhetoric about the Millennials refers to them as the ‘future of society.’ I disagree. I think they are the present, which is a good thing, because they are actively building a future that will benefit all of us, to which I say:

Thank you!  

(And get involved!)

David Burstein - Fast Future, Millennials and Empathy

I recently had an illuminating conversation with David Burstein, Millennial author, film-maker, non-profit founder, scholar, and a lot of other equally impressive adjectives.

David D. Burstein

David D. Burstein

I was inspired to reach out to him after reading his book Fast Future:  How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World

In Fast Future, David puts his peers under a microscope and studies their motivations, challenges and growing success, while bringing into focus the kind of world they are working to build. (You can also check out his TedX talk from 2012.)

Chatting with David also led to clarity about something that has confused me recently regarding Millennials. More on that in a minute.

During our conversation, I was particularly struck by one of David’s insights: 

“It is possible for people 13, 14 or 15 years old to build something of real consequence.”

He made this comment while answering a question about whether anything in particular had happened in his formative years that contributed to his ability to succeed in driving social change so early in life.

In response, he shared an experience that took place during his sophomore year of high school, which he felt was a catalyst for his ambition and rapid success.

While in 10th grade, he and some friends decided to create a film festival. Despite not having any experience or resources, they were able to quickly raise 50k and plan the logistics of the event. Unsure whether anyone would even be interested in participating, they were amazed when film submissions flowed in. Even more surprising, the submissions revealed that very young people around the world were doing impressive work to transform their communities.

From that experience, David concluded that:

1.  Access to resources and possession of subject matter expertise are not always necessary for creating social change. Instead, the ability to identify a challenge, form a team of motivated peers, devise a solution, and craft a plan for implementation can be better predictors for success. (Which seems to be something that Millennials and their younger siblings, GenerationZ, are instinctively good at.)

2. No one is too young to create solutions. No one. As David put it: 

“We learned that it was actually possible as a young person to do something ourselves!”

He also emphasized that having a vested interest in the change you are trying to make is equally critical for success, because:

“You can’t effect change unless you have a personal connection to it.”

Perhaps that’s why so many young people are focusing their first social change efforts on solving problems in their own communities Like 13-year old Kelvin Doe from Sierra Leone, who created a battery that provides electricity to his whole neighborhood.

Makes sense. They have clearer insights about the challenges faced by their friends and families and, therefore, a personal investment in seeing change made.  

So everything David told me about Millennials, including his own goals and approach to creating social change, resonated with what I’ve read, intuited and experienced in my interactions with them.

But here’s the weird part:  It’s in direct opposition to a meme that’s been floating around the last several years, one which has gained some momentum:

Millennials lack empathy (the ability to identify, understand and care about the feelings of others), say critics (many of whom are academics). They’re just too narcissistic to focus on anyone but themselves. They’re only concerned with becoming rich and famous.

Recent Time Magazine cover story that attempted (and failed) to understand GenY.

Recent Time Magazine cover story that attempted (and failed) to understand GenY.

Now, I’m no scholar. I’m no social scientist. But I do live in the world and interact daily with the generation in question, and I sometimes read things, and here's my professional opinion about this meme:

It’s a load of crap.

And it’s not just slightly off-kilter crap. Rather, it totally misses what may be the defining characteristic of Millennials:  They don't lack empathy. They are the embodiment of empathy!

Want proof?

Consider this:

-  73% of Indian Millennials and 83% of Chinese Millennials feel that they and their peers are prioritizing “we” over “me." (SOURCE: Trendspotter)

- Youth in the Middle East are leading an initiative to teach peaceful conflict resolution. 

- Earlier this year, Dominican youth stood up for the rights of their Haitian peers.

New research indicates that Millennials are not only being misunderstood when they're called narcissistic, they are, in fact, incredibly generous. 

- Oh, and some additional research now debunks the previous research that claimed Millennials are more narcissistic than previous generations.

Building something of real consequence. Being personally invested in making social change. Thinking collectively versus individually. That doesn't sound like entitlement to me. It sounds like momentum.

As David Burstein says, the future is here, and it's moving fast. 

 

 

 

Millennial Trains Project: America's New Pioneers

The is the 2nd of two posts. The 1st can be read here. 

Speaking of transformational youth, my second conversation was with Jessica Straus, a spokesperson for the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), whose inaugural journey took place in August. The group traveled on a refurbished train, described as a “retro piece of industrial hardware,”  from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. This was the first of three planned trips, with the next one scheduled to travel from Los Angeles to Miami in March 2014.

 

 MTP was founded by Patrick Dowd, a Fulbright scholar who co-led a Jagriti Yatra journey in 2010-11. Similar to Jagriti Yatra, MTP has a pioneering sensibility and seeks to engage Millennials who are interested in exploring new frontiers.

MTP also has some additional, unique attributes. For example, to help instill a sense of personal commitment, and to demonstrate an ability to build a community around an issue, participants were each required to raise $5,000 to help fund the journey. Crowdfunding also produced a greater sense of accountability, because the funders (each initiative had about 100 of them) would likely monitor the progress of the projects they helped fund.

MTP founder, Patrick Dowd.

MTP founder, Patrick Dowd.

MTP participants on the train, reflecting and collaborating.

MTP participants on the train, reflecting and collaborating.

Like Jagriti Yatra, MTP’s participants were a collection of young people who possessed a unique quality that all Millennial leaders seem to share:  Aspirational pragmatism. That is, the ability to craft a lofty vision that is grounded in common sense.

The MTP participants, Jessica explained, “saw possibilities for disruption everywhere. They imagined how to design a preferred future. What systems of scale would look like. For an entire government. Or a school.”

“There was very much a sense of leaving the west and going towards the rising sun,” she added.

Like Jagriti Yatra, the MTP organizers believe smaller towns and cities offer greater potential for change than big urban centers, because there is often no entrenched bureaucracy.

“There are big opportunities to design your future in these small-sized cities,” Jessica said. “And that was a huge learning. GenY can move there and move the needle.”

It was while visiting smaller towns that the MTP participants developed an important insight:  Transportation was a problem in virtually every community they visited. It was obvious that the existing infrastructures were not built to support the needs of contemporary society, which was having a direct impact on local economies.

 

The good news is that in addition to identifying the problem, the team encountered a potential solution, in a very unexpected location. During a stop in Omaha, Nebraska, they were introduced to Anne Trumble, a visionary landscape architect,  and founder of Emerging Terrain, a non-profit that collaborates with governments, citizens and artists to “re-shape the built environment.”

Emerging Terrain has taken on the challenge of helping Omaha solve its transportation-related challenges by thinking about its needs and existing resources holistically and creatively. The group believes, for example, that “transport can include networks linking people, goods, ideas, information, economic growth, urban development, cultures, resources, and technology.”

Stored Potential

Stored Potential

As one of its first efforts, Emerging Terrain launched Stored Potential, a project to revitalize a grain elevator by painting murals on it that would provide an aesthetic improvement to the area while initiating a public conversation about how to transform shared spaces. (Re-imaging existing spaces, beliefs and institutions seems to be a Millennial theme, and it certainly characterizes both Jagriti Yatra and MTP.)

It would have been difficult to launch a project like Stored Potential in New York or L.A., due to inflexible bureaucracies, but Omaha embraced the initiative, and Emerging Terrain’s success has been so profound that other communities throughout the U.S. and the world are seeking to emulate it.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Jessica whether she had learned anything new about Millennials during the MTP journey. She said yes, that she had been surprised by the degree to which the group made an effort to support one another.

“There were twenty-four different Millennials working on twenty-four different projects. There were projects on open government and clean energy. On poetry. Art. Higher education. And even though each member had their own unique focus, they were willing to think outside the parameters of their own projects to help solve the problems of others. There was a willingness to come together.”

Yes, something is going on. As Jessica put it, we are in the “throes of revitalization.” The world’s youth, the Millennials, are in motion. They are in active pursuit of a preferred future, and although this shift is in its infancy, initiatives like Jagriti Yatra and the Millennial Trains Project are an exciting indication of the drive, focus and selflessness that Millennials can bring to problem-solving.

We should all get on board.

Jagriti Yatra: India's Millennial Entrepreneurs

This is Part 1 of 2 blog posts.  

I launched this blog by stating my belief that some sort of universal shift is underway (“something is going on”). In other words, the world’s equilibrium has been disturbed. And according to the laws of physics, when equilibrium is disturbed, something gets set in motion. In this case, it’s Millennials. Literally.

Picture this:

Teams of motivated, insightful young people decide to solve the world’s biggest problems. They work individually to develop ideas. Then, they meet up in a city and board a train that has been outfitted with everything from sleeping and dining facilities to spaces equipped with presentation technology.

The train makes its way across the country for a week or two, during which the collaborators share ideas, enhance each other’s thinking, and reflect. Periodically, the train stops so they can visit local communities and engage with entrepreneurs and visionaries.

Finally, they arrive at a destination on the other side of the country and head back to their homes with a clearer vision of what they can do to improve their communities.

These journeys are starting to happen all over the world. In fact, two took place recently, one in India and one in the United States. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with organizers from both, and I came away inspired and even more convinced that civilization (or, as Millennial author David Burstein calls it, the “human operating system”) is experiencing a massive re-boot.

My first conversation was with Ashutosh Kumar, the Executive Director of Jagriti Yatra, a transcontinental train journey that takes “hundreds of India’s highly motivated youth on a fifteen-day national odyssey and introduces them to the unsung heroes of India.”

 

The group’s first journey took place in 1997, which was the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. The purpose was to travel across the country and observe the changes that had taken place over the 50 years.

The focus changed in 2007, Ashutosh explained, because “the organizers realized that India had 704 million people below the age of 30, meaning it would soon become the world’s most youthful country.” (Even surpassing China!)

 

“They also realized that India was producing 10 million college graduates each year, but only adding about 3.5 million jobs.”

That meant millions of motivated, educated youth were entering the job market every year unable to find employment. So the Jagriti leaders decided to focus on empowering India’s youth to become entrepreneurs, hoping they would, in turn, invent new economic engines that would reduce the employment gap, create a sustainable middle class, and help end India’s crippling cycle of poverty.

 

Realizing that the majority of India’s youth are concentrated outside urban centers, the Jagriti team crafted a train route that would connect India’s college-educated Millennial youth with their peers around the country – especially those in the remotest areas - to learn about their real needs and challenges and to create business opportunities.

Some of India's Millennial entrepreneurs.

Some of India's Millennial entrepreneurs.

It’s working! Since 2007, over 200 new businesses have been launched! In addition, Jagriti Yatra's success has caught the attention of international corporations like Google, which has led to plans for more journeys. In fact, the next one departs in December.

The future looks very bright for India, thanks to initiatives like Jagriti Yatra. If its youth are given access to education and technology, receive continued support from government and business leaders, and are empowered to identify solutions, they can create new engines of prosperity for their country.

Consulting and collaborating on the train.

Consulting and collaborating on the train.

That’s good news for everyone, because with 700+ million youth actively working to create a new middle class, the momentum of India will extend far beyond its borders. The result? India’s Millennials can play a leading role in transforming the global economy, and more importantly, the world itself.

Coming up on Friday, Oct 11.: Part 2. Another transformational train journey by another amazing team of Millennials. 

 

Why I started this blog

Let me start at the beginning.

Something is going on.

This thought has entered my mind repeatedly over the last couple of years.

Usually, it occurs when I’m looking at research about consumer trends. Consumer research is, essentially, the study of people. It provides a window into the minds of individuals and communities. Lately, it's been telling me that...

SOMETHING IS GOING ON!

So, what is the something? Well, evidence suggests that a major change is taking place in the world, and it revolves around people. Evidence like:

 - The collapse of social, business and government institutions that were previously considered permanent.

 - The rise of a ‘shadow economy’ that now employs half the world’s workers (and will employ 75% of them in less than a decade).

-  The widespread rejection of long-standing belief systems and traditions.

Millennials. The first global generation in history.

Millennials. The first global generation in history.

But perhaps most important, a phenomenon is occurring that has never happened before in history. I’m talking about the Millennials (people currently under 34 years old), the biggest generation ever, who now make up over HALF of the world’s population! Their impact promises to be both exciting and profound, because, simply stated, this group is determined to improve the world. 

 

Thiago Olson. 17-year old student who built a nuclear device in his basement

Thiago Olson. 17-year old student who built a nuclear device in his basement

Even more fascinating, new research suggests that the most significant changes will be driven by a small subset of the Millennials, about 11 percent to be exact, because they possess particular qualities, such as an optimistic mindset, quick adaptability to new technologies, and a unique ability to problem-solve in ways that are both aspirational and practical. Plus, they have a natural ability to attract communities of supporters. That's how you get things done!

These people really want to discard institutions, beliefs and processes that are no longer relevant and create new ones that are better suited to the needs of society today. That may be why historians believe this moment in time will be as significant as the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution! 

So, who are they, this 11 percent?  Where are they?  What is the preferred future they are envisioning?  What are they doing to make it a reality? 

Alia Sabur. 18-years old and the world's youngest college professor.

Alia Sabur. 18-years old and the world's youngest college professor.

That's the something, and it's what I’m going to explore in this blog.

I’m going to seek out these ambitious Millennials – wherever they are in the world – and engage them in conversations about the momentous universal experience that has begun and the role they are playing in driving it. 

In fact, I've already begun, and the initial conversations I've had with these emerging global leaders have been thrilling, and they have cemented my belief that while the effect of Millennials on society has been quietly taking root for a while, it is reaching a threshold where the impact will feel like turning on a light switch.

So, that's what I mean when I say that: 

Something is going on! 

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I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

 

~Sam