Millennials Think Globally, Act Locally


The phrase, “Think Globally, Act Locally” has often been used by environmentalists to sum up a strategy devoted to conserving the earth's scarce natural resources at the local level. More recently, business executives borrowed the idea to emphasize the need for building capabilities at the country or regional level even as they pursue global growth. But now the Millennial Generation, Americans born between 1982 and 2003, are giving the phrase an entirely new meaning as they pursue their efforts to change the world – one local community at a time.

In contrast to the generational stereotypes many people hold of them, Millennials are very much concerned about and connected to the world around them – more so, in fact, than many older Americans. Responding to questions on foreign policy in a recent Pew Research Center survey, only 9% of Millennials were unable to express an opinion on how President Obama is doing in working with our allies, while almost a quarter of senior citizens had no opinion on the same subject. On the knotty question of Israeli/Palestinian relations, all but 7% of Millennials could tell survey researchers what they thought of American foreign policy in this area. On the other hand, 26% of senior citizens could not (see table below).

In addition to its high level of concern with international matters, the Millennial Generation's ability to make virtual friends instantaneously on Facebook or Twitter with Iranian protesters provides a unique perspective on how to deal with America’s foreign policy challenges.

Perhaps most notable is how the Millennial Generation deals with the concept of "threats". A majority of Millennials do see Al Qaeda, and the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran as "major threats" to the United States, but by rates 15 to 20 points less than other generations. Other more intractable but less direct security concerns, such as the drug trade in Mexico, China’s emergence as a world power, or conflicts in the Mideast ranging from Pakistan to Palestine, are not considered a major threat among a majority of Millennials. To be sure, some of these attitudes may reflect the inevitable naiveté of young people, but we believe the underlying beliefs of Millennials suggest an alternative explanation.

Millennials have been taught since at least high school that the best way to solve a societal problem is act upon it locally and directly. Tired of exalted rhetoric from Boomer leaders that rarely produced results and frustrated by their older Gen-X siblings lack of interest in pursuing any collective action to address broad social problems, Millennials have embraced individual initiative linked to community action. Eighty-five percent of college age Millennials consider voluntary community service an effective way to solve the nation’s problems. Virtually everyone in the generation (94%) believes it’s an effective way to deal with challenges in their local community. No wonder one of Barack Obama’s first legislative initiatives, the Kennedy National Service Act, was in response to the desire to serve of his most loyal constituency, the Millennial Generation.

And when it comes to public service, Millennials are putting their money where their mouth is, although lack of opportunity in the private sector also could be accelerating this public service trend. Teach for America, which places new graduates in low-income schools, saw a 42% increase in applications over 2008. Around 35,000 students are now competing for about 4,000 slots. U.S. undergraduates ranked Teach for America and the Peace Corps among their top 10 "ideal employers," ahead of the likes of Nike or General Electric.

Scotty Fay, a recent University of Massachusetts graduate, typifies the continuing belief of her generation in the importance of collective action to cope with a challenging world. “If we excel and we’re able to keep ourselves working, we’ll be OK, we hope, because we haven’t experienced anything different than that,” says Fay, who worked two jobs on top of her full-time course load, and is now getting ready for her Peace Corps assignment in Guinea.

First Lady Michelle Obama, in kicking off the administration’s “summer of service” initiative, made it clear that the administration sees this belief as key to America’s future. “This new Administration doesn’t view service as separate from our national priorities, or in addition to our national priorities – we see it as the key to achieving our national priorities.” Given the likelihood of continuing employment challenges for America’s newest workers, more and more Millennials are likely to gain their first work experiences performing some type of voluntary service.

This penchant for public service shapes the beliefs of Millennials on how the United States should deal with the problems it faces around the world. In last year's contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Millennials believed Barack Obama was right and Hillary Clinton was wrong over whether to conduct direct talks with our enemies. And they thought Sarah Palin was completely off base when she declared in her acceptance speech at the convention that “the world is not a community and it doesn’t need an organizer.” In fact, Millennials believe that what the world needs most is thousands of community organizers, working on the ground to solve their own country’s problems, linked electronically, of course, to friends around the world.

This is a trend that, appropriately, resonates outside our borders as well. Grassroots activism, led largely by young Iranians, produced protests that may yet topple one of the most autocratic regimes in the world. Activism of this type across the Mideast could result in regime changes of far greater consequence than the military conquest strategy the United States employed in Iraq. Given the distinctions Millennials make between the seriousness of direct military threats, such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation, as opposed to squabbles over power or territory, America’s foreign policy is likely to shift towards a more multi-lateral, institution-building focus as this generation assumes our country’s leadership. This will occur even as Millennials continue to express support for our military by word and deed – when that becomes the only available option.

It may take a decade or two before we know how the Millennial Generation's belief in the need to “think globally, act locally” will impact our overall foreign policy. But in the interim, the United States will surely benefit from the generation's focus on rebuilding our country, as well as the world, one community at a time.

Total Millennials Gen-X Boomers Silent & Older
Obama favors… (6/09)          
Israel too much 6% 5% 9% 6% 4%
Palestinians too much 17% 9% 16% 20% 23%
Right balance 62% 79% 62% 63% 47%
DK 14% 7% 13% 11% 26%
Compared with Bush Administration has Obama Administration made US (6/09)          
Safer from terrorism 28% 40% 23% 29% 23%
Less safe from terrorism 21% 16% 20% 23% 24%
No difference 44% 38% 48% 43% 44%
DK 7% 6% 9% 5% 9%
 Is each of following a "major threat" to well-being of US (6/09)          
Islamic extremist groups like Al Qaeda 78% 59% 77% 86% 85%
North Korea's nuclear program 72% 51% 74% 75% 81%
Iran's nuclear program 69% 55% 67% 75% 76%
Drug-related violence in Mexico 59% 42% 55% 61% 77%
China's emergence as world power 52% 31% 51% 59% 61%
Political instability in Pakistan 50% 30% 45% 59% 63%
Israel/Palestine conflict 49% 39% 45% 53% 58%
In dealing with our allies does Obama…(6/09)          
Push America's interests too hard 8% 3% 10% 6% 11%
Take account of allies' interests too much 20% 13% 18% 25% 22%
Strikes right balance 57% 76% 53% 59% 46%
DK 15% 9% 18% 10% 22%
Approve how Obama is handling foreign policy (6/09) 57% 59% 61% 52% 55%
Is Obama's approach to national security…(6/09)          
Too tough 2% 1% 2% 5% 2%
Not tough enough 38% 30% 37% 42% 41%
About right 51% 64% 53% 46% 48%
DK 8% 6% 8% 7% 10%
Approve/Disapprove how Obama is handling North Korea (6/09)          
Approve 51% 61% 50% 55% 38%
Disapprove 23% 15% 26% 22% 25%
DK 26% 24% 24% 23% 36%

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.

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Globe thinker

Actually, I think globally as well--and most of my GenX friends do as well. In fact, many of them are working overseas or volunteering for international non-profits.
Hopefully soon--and not in a decade or two, we'll see how all of our impact on global-minded activism will shape the world while our country's placement shifts. I think that more and more, people of all generations are thinking more globally because that is how the world is shaping. For example: One can read the London Times, Le Monde, Al Jazeera online or learn some Mandarin through their employers to communicate with Chinese interests. Companies must broaden their scope to survive in this crappy economy. It's not just a group of people born during a certain time-period that are thinking globally--not by a long shot.
So, hopefully this inevitable global village will curb Milennial's "frustration for their older siblings", and perhaps even inspire a little bit of collaboration with all generations.
Right now the world is trying to help Haiti out of the rubble of a devastating earthquake. I would think that this example of global support could bring together people of all ages who speak many different languages for a grand gesture of human compassion.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics...

Several problems with the inferences made in this piece:

1. Citing lower "DK" responses made by Millennials to various foreign policy questions relative to other generations, the authors reach: "Millennials are very much concerned about and connected to the world around them". Could it not be that the typical hubris of youth prompts them to answer questions they know little about? "Concern" is not knowledge - in fact we are in a dangerous place when they are disconnected.

2. The authors opine: "This penchant for public service shapes the beliefs of Millennials on how the United States should deal with the problems it faces around the world", seeing some direct line between volunteering and a more open stance to meeting with dictators. Putting aside the fact that the President has back-tracked from this campaign position, how exactly do "Teach for America" and a foreign policy that encourages President-to-dictator/religious extremist talks relate to one another?

3. The authors proffer: "Millennials believe that what the world needs most is thousands of community organizers"...really? The authors are loose with their language here, equating volunteerism with "community organizing", which has become a fairly formalized process, based on a line of philosophes from Rousseau to Alinsky. In general, organizers develop a confrontational, not collaborative, relationship with governing institutions, attacking what they view to be autocratic minorities in these institutions with vocal minorities. The goals of most "organizers" (and these can be legitimate even if they are a minority position) are greater service provision by government. The goals of most volunteer organizations is, in fact, service provision. The two efforts should not be conflated.

4. The authors critique: "they thought Sarah Palin was completely off base when she declared in her acceptance speech at the convention that “the world is not a community and it doesn’t need an organizer”. This is not supported by the statistics cited. The authors' let their "slips show" regarding what has been one of the great political philosophy questions. From Rousseau to Herb Croly and Lippmann (before he grew wiser with age), Progressives have pushed for a "national community" vision. With globalization, this philosophy has ballooned to encompass global communities. Besides bastardizing an extremely important concept (what are my rights/responsibilities to the world?), this philosophy glosses over the "messiness" that is national culture and history. The authors would do well to pick up Pierre Manent's "Democracy Without Nations?" or Natan Sharansky's "Defending Identity" to get a sense as to the damage this worldview does when formulated into actual policy.

In the statistics shown in the chart, the authors reveal nothing but a more general support of the President among Millennials. You could have asked them any questions - from beer preferences to health care - and received similar answers. These statistics remind me of how my Gen X generation viewed Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan was "cool" is Obama.