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.