Contrary to media myth, today's younger generation is not disaffected or lost. They are less Sartre and more like Plato: giving back is suddenly cool again. There is a sense of urgency to change the world for good.
The data speak for themselves: in Canada, younger Canadians demonstrate higher levels of enthusiasm for civic participation than do other generations. While it may not fit the Millennial slacktivism motif, people under 30 today are, in fact, more empathic and willing to volunteer and 'give back' than baby boomers.
Have no doubt: Giving back doesn't mean joining a political party. That is a legacy concept. Important studies by Samara have revealed a growing cynicism about government and politicians. That's why young people are looking for meaningful ways to advance the collective good. It is a cognitive error to believe that yesterday's notions of giving back through political engagement alone apply today.
I recently attended my own high school's 25th year reunion and collected some stories that prove that young people celebrate, through their actions, the importance of the Greater Whole. Upper Canada College, still erroneously considered synonymous by some in Canada with privilege, aims to provide 20 per cent of its students - roughly 220 boys - on full or partial scholarships by 2015-2016. And people under 30 are the ones who care most fervently about this. Why?
They know that financial assistance serves the common good. Consider Taylor Harris. He graduated from Upper Canada College in 2009, yet decided to recently donate $250,000. He's among an increasing number of young people whose passion for giving back turns any notion of a 'selfie'-obsessed generation on its head.
"I know our generation is sometimes described as narcissistic and selfish; I'd say we're self-aware," says Harris. "There's a mountain of causes out there--and it's all about aligning your singular passion with the right organization."
This is not a singular occurrence
Rita Stuart and Shael Greenberg are volunteer co-chairs and supporters of the Art Gallery of Ontario's youngest donor group, AGO Next. Together with the AGO Next committee, they oversee a dynamic membership program for individuals under 40 who want to immerse themselves in art. "My involvement with AGO Next stems from my desire to highlight the importance of developing creativity within our community," says Stuart, an associate at Nicholas Metivier Gallery. Stuart and Greenberg work together to create engaging encounters for members by connecting them with art and artists in lively social settings.
Greenberg adds, "As an AGO Next member you not only enjoy the benefits of being part of such a prolific group of young professional art enthusiasts and cultural makers, but you can also take pleasure in giving back to an institution that gives so much to everyone who enters its doors."
Mental health is on the radar
Young people, unlike generations past, talk about mental health openly. This is something especially pleasing to me: I have seen havoc wreaked on families dear to me by the burden of mental health. We all remembered from my own graduating year a fellow graduate who had committed suicide. Over our alumni dinner a few of us shared our guilt: that we should have known better; that we should have done more to help him. Even having a discussion like that is not possible but for leaders, of any age, who melt away the stigma associated with mental illness. (Special shout out to superstar athlete and Olympic medalist Mark Tewksbury for help leading the way here!).
Stephanie DeGasperis, 31, and Amanda, 29, are creating a movement for awareness and change through Stretch the Soul. Now in its fourth year, this day of yoga and wellness, held in Vaughan, has raised an outstanding $82,000 to support the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), by bringing people together for health benefits that go well beyond the physical. As Stephanie says: "We are excited about encouraging mental and physical health and balance through positive lifestyle choices and action -- and we're delighted to support CAMH and its initiatives to end the stigma around mental illness."
Aidan, 6, and Paige, 4, Piurko have raised over $900 for Evergreen's programs to bring nature back to our cities. The Piurko family goes for walks with their dog, Kilo, on weekends at Evergreen Brick Works. It's also where the kids stepped on to the ice for the first time at the outdoor rink, and they even bought their Christmas tree there. Evergreen Brick Works is something to be discovered, gradually over time--long walks, passive viewing of bugs and frogs and birds, ice skating, mountain biking, lunch, fresh produce. While their family has experienced many of its obvious and hidden treasures there are still so many things to be discovered.
Lucas Goodenough, 19, is a second-year International Development and Business student at the University of Waterloo. He is also the events director of The Barefoot Walk -- a London, Ont. based charitable event that raises funds and awareness about social injustices around the world. Over the past seven years, Lucas and the organizing committee have worked to raise more than $100,000 for Free The Children and $20,000 for other local charities. His journey with Free The Children began five years ago through the Barefoot Walk. Since then, Lucas has also sat the Youth Advisory Committee, which not only deepened his passion for philanthropy and Free The Children's local and global initiatives, but also inspired him to continue his work with The Barefoot Walk and to be a young donor for the organization.
Jeff Gallant and Kyle MacDonald, both 25, are both accomplished young professionals working in the financial sector and long-time supporters of the Hospital for Sick Children. Both men are SickKids Innovators, as well as Global Shapers recognized by the World Economic Forum. Their most significant contribution to the hospital came in the form of their not-for-profit, Capitalize for Kids. The organization is focused on mobilizing private capital for the public good by funding initiatives at the intersection of finance and child health. Capitalize for Kids' highest profile event, Sohn Canada Conference (on October 23 to 24), is set to raise $1 million to support the Centre for Brain and Mental Health at SickKids. To Jeff and Kyle, "Sohn Canada is the first step in fulfilling Capitalize for Kids' mission, creating a community of professions who are doing well by doing good."
Caroline Stern, 26, is an associate at Burgundy Asset Management and has been involved with Right To Play since 2012. She is currently the vice-president of sponsorship on their Champions Network of Young Professionals' executive board. Her goal is to bring awareness about Right To Play's programs and initiatives to her peers and to raise funds in support of the Right To Play mission. As a lifelong athlete, Caroline has gained confidence, leadership and team-working skills from playing sports, and personally understands the pivotal role that Right To Play programs have on a child's future. In addition to volunteering with Right To Play, Caroline is a passionate advocate for St. Michael's Hospital and is a member of their St. Michael's Young Leaders program. As Caroline says: "It's an exciting time to be a young philanthropist, whether you want to support international development, the arts, a local hospital, or almost anything else; every young person can find a cause with which they can personally connect and make an impact in the community."
Back to Taylor Harris, 23, from my alma mater. When I heard about a significant new donation to the school, I labored under the same assumption as many: it would come from a graduate or person affiliated with the school in his or her 50s or older.
Harris, now studying law at Cambridge University, is the youngest leadership donor to UCC's $100-million Think Ahead fundraising campaign, to date. After graduating from Upper Canada College in 2009 he attended the University of Western Ontario. His $250,000 gift will support financial assistance at Upper Canada College. "My family really instilled the value of giving back," says Harris. (Growing up, 30 per cent of his allowance was allotted to charity.) "It's important for young people to find their niche and find a way to lead within that," he says. "I got so much out of my UCC education so when the opportunity to give came up, I stepped up."
We do not all have the capacity to give financially to the collective good. We are all imperfect. To be vain enough to think that any of us is better than another is what Plato would have considered the greatest sin. All we have is a duty to try, our best, to help those in need. Boomers and Gen-Xers can learn from those under thirty.