The apathy of the young is a perennial theme of the old. Every day, across the media, parents and grandparents can be heard fretting about the kids—bemoaning their continuing drop in political participation, worrying about excessive screen time and social-media distractions, lamenting their alleged self-absorption.
The truth about this next generation is a lot more hopeful than that. While they’re understandably daunted by problems as complicated as climate change, terrorism, and income inequality, polls, statistics, and anecdotal data by the boatload suggest that today’s much-doubted young will be as engaged with the issues of the day as any generation before them—and may be even better at making positive change.
The leading edge of “Generation Z” (born from the mid-1990s to 2010) has already shown evidence of an active social conscience—for example, in Afghan teen Malala Yousafzai, who at age 18 became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But Gen Z also boasts plenty of less celebrated activists—people like Virginia teen Sejal Makheja, who founded The Elevator Project, which provides job training to people in poverty, when she was just 14. A recent study by cultural forecasting firm Sparks and Honey found that 26% of 16-19-year olds already volunteer on a regular basis.
In this sense they seem to be following in the footsteps of their older siblings the millennials, who are defying a reputation for entitlement by turning out to be remarkably generous. According to the latest Millennial Impact Report from the Case Foundation, 84 percent of them made a charitable donation in 2014, and 70 percent were volunteering for a favorite cause or charity.
One measure of the younger generation’s passion for making positive change is reflected in the extraordinary success of We Day, a set of programs celebrating and inspiring youth to make a difference in local and global communities. Founded by Toronto-based social activist brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger, We Day—along with associated brands Me To We and Free The Children—is dedicated to the proposition that young people must be taken seriously as a potent source of positive change. “This is an incredibly powerful generation,” says Marc Kielburger, “and We Day taps into that power. We Day not only believes in them but also helps unleash what is really great about them.”
What started as a single day-long event back in 2007 has grown into a multi-city tour with 14 dates across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The 2015-16 We Day tour took eighteen months to plan, employs a full-time staff of more than 300 and, by the time it’s over, will have reached 200,000 young people, almost 15,000 a night. In the last eight years, more than 650,000 kids have attended We Day events, and that number just keeps growing.
Anyone who goes to We Day expecting protest speeches or “storm-the-barricades” rhetoric will be disappointed. We Day is a celebration, and the tone is one of extreme enthusiasm on the part of everyone involved—speakers, performers and, especially, attendees. Think pop concert, pep rally, and awards show all rolled into one.
A significant portion of the event consists of video segments that highlight the efforts of notable young “world changers.” A recent We Day event, for example, featured a short film about two Chicago area youths—Razia Hutchins and Maurice Young—who organized a march against gang violence in their community that grew into a national movement called “I Am For Peace.” When the video ended, the two were ushered on stage by Allstate CEO Tom Wilson, who informed them they would each be receiving a $10,000 college scholarship.
It doesn’t hurt either that the We Day event features pop-star supporters (Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas), role-model politicians (Canada’s Justin Trudeau), and Gen-Z activist heroes, including Malala Yousafzai—people whose encouragement and praise leaves the kids in the audience with a sense of achievement for what they did to get there.
You can’t buy a ticket to We Day. The event is paid for with the support of corporate sponsors such as Allstate, and the kids have to earn the right to be there, in a year-long educational program called We Schools, which is one of many We Day programs. “We wanted to create a movement,” Craig Kielburger explains, “using schools as a distribution point, to make changing the world just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic.”
The We Schools program currently equips more than 10,000 educational institutions with curricula, in-service teacher training and background materials on issues ranging from local poverty and homelessness to global labor rights and the environment. A campaign can be as simple as “We Volunteer Now,” in which students plan, organize, and implement a community-service project, or as far-reaching as “We Are Rafikis,” in which participants sell bracelets made by Kenyan women in order to help them start businesses and feed their families. Students take concrete actions, track their impact, and share the results. We Schools hopes to expand the program to 24,000 schools by 2020.
Not everyone who participates in We Day will end up living a life of social activism, but the sense of purpose instilled in We Day programs also changes the world—one life at a time. According to research by social impact consulting firm Mission Management, 89% of We Day participants report feeling empowered by the experience to make change, 80% volunteer over 150 hours a year after attending the program, and 83% give to charities—the kind of numbers that should make the old folks sit up and take notice.