07/25/2013 12:36 EDT | Updated 09/24/2013 05:12 EDT

Behind The Headlines: Millennials Believe They Can Change the World

In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about.

The headline that caught our attention: "Millennials genuinely think they can change the world and their communities."

It's the kind of headline that makes us smile. That's half our mission in life, right there in a nutshell -- to inspire in young people the positive belief that they can change the world, and the active desire to get out there and do it.

The article, posted on the web site co.Exist, covered the findings of an international survey from 27 countries around the world, including 151 from Canada.

The survey, conducted by Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica, polled Millennials on their views about the most pressing issues facing the world; what is most needed to bring global change; and their own power to create change.

We can't do justice to all the findings of this survey, but here are a few of the interesting results:

  • Youth in North America, Europe and Asia believe the economy is the most pressing issue facing their region. For Europeans and Asians, the number two issue was social inequality, while our North American Millennials put education in the number two spot. For Latin Americans, social inequality is problem number one.
  • 53 per cent of all Millennials see climate change as a "very pressing" problem. A striking 90 per cent of the 18- to 30-year-old Canadians surveyed said it was "very" or "somewhat" pressing.
  • 63 per cent of youth say it is very difficult for their generation to make the transition from school to a working career. It's worth noting here that, according to other headlines we saw this week, the youth unemployment rate in Canada remains double the national average at around 14 per cent.
  • 42 per cent of all the youth surveyed said improving access to quality education is the best way we can bring positive change to the world. The next most popular answers were protecting the environment (41 per cent) and eliminating poverty (39 per cent).

Now we come to the questions behind the headline -- how do young people around the world feel about their own individual power to create change?

Sixty-two per cent of youth surveyed around the world believe they have the power to make a real impact in their own local communities. Not bad. From there, however, the actual numbers somewhat challenge the positive headline. When asked if they believe their participation can make a difference in their own national political system -- only 45 per cent said yes. And only 40 per cent believe they have the power to make a difference globally.

Canadian youth are somewhat more optimistic -- 50 per cent expressed the opinion that one person can make a global difference. Last year, with the support of RBC and TELUS, we conducted our own survey of 2,400 Canadian youth and their parents. In that poll, 57 per cent of 17 year olds said their generation has the greatest opportunity to change the world.

If you don't believe your efforts can make a difference, you're probably less likely to even try. So how do we build that optimism in young people so they do believe? From our personal experience volunteering for Free The Children, the key is exposure. When young people are exposed to a broad worldview, and taught to see themselves as global citizens, they will believe that they can make a change -- and they'll want to.

Since 2009, more than 278,000 young people have attended We Day events across North America, and more than 1.5-million others have viewed the events on TV or the Internet. Through We Day, these youth are exposed to ideas and experiences from inspirational speakers around the world. And each year some 1,500 other young Canadians travel overseas to volunteer on our projects in developing countries.

In 2011, we undertook a study of Free the Children alumni -- youth who have been involved in one way or another with our organization. The results were astounding: 80 per cent told us they had given more than 150 volunteer hours over the previous year, and 83 per cent had made a financial donation to a charity. Even their involvement in Canada's civic process was impacted -- 79 per cent of the alumni who were of voting age said they had voted in the 2011 national election. That's 18 per cent higher than the overall voter turnout for that election!

With that survey we also zoomed the lens in and conducted a case study of the youth who attended We Day in Waterloo, ON. Walking into the arena, 34 per cent of youth agreed with the statement, "I can only make a very small difference." Walking out, that number dropped to three per cent.

The next generation is ready and willing to change the world. We just have to encourage their belief that they can.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit

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