How millennials will save the world—one text at a time

The world at their fingertips.
The world at their fingertips.
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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I was recently asked to present at a think tank of old brilliant guys. Yes, guys. Not one woman. If that predisposes you to not like them, that’s okay. Read on.

My topic was millennials. I’m the CEO of an advertising agency focused on positive change, and I have been studying this generation since before they were in their buying years. For some reason I have had high hopes for them. The research bears this out. As I started to present my findings on millennials, a curmudgeon in the group started to get visibly antsy. His discontent was registered by barely audible grumbles until I said: “Millennials are the most optimistic generation in history.”

At this, the man could no longer contain himself. “Millennials are idiots!” he proclaimed. “They have lost the ability to write because of texting. They are unmotivated because the world now comes to them. And worse, they are entitled.”

I realized my expertise on millennials was more bookish than worldly. In my mind, I raced to cite data to corroborate my position and counter his. Millennials are actually the most educated generation in history. They will travel more than any other preceding generation. They know they have to work harder because the job market no longer guarantees a place for college graduates in its ranks. I had all that data at my fingertips, but I couldn’t point to first-hand experience about their optimism.

So, this year my agency conducted an experiment: we hired eight interns, all Millennials, from around the world. To top off the experiment, we took on an impossible task and launched an immersive three-week sprint to submit for the Cannes Chimera Initiative, which promotes use of creativity to address social causes. The assignment this year was to come up with ideas that would inspire Millennials to become engaged in solving the global health crisis. The first part of the challenge was to present ideas to our senior leadership team at the agency. For two hours, my jaw dropped as idea after idea arrested my imagination and filled my heart with hope and protective pride.

This is not just an optimistic generation, this is an empowered generation of young people that believe it is more than their right to make a difference—it is their duty.

Like any generalization, I am sure there are exceptions, but what this crew pulled off in a matter of weeks would humble people twice their age. Ideation, co-creation, collaboration; they accomplished all of this while pushing the submission process well beyond what was expected. Through their social networks and phones, they mobilized to create a pop-up immersion session attended by over 100 people that contributed to the betterment of the ideas they created. It was a wildly successful exercise in executing the impossible in favor of solving impossible problems, while leveraging their digital literacy.

I hate texting. It makes me crazy when I see my daughter with her head in her phone. But I take solace in knowing that we have not lost a generation to the cell phone. This is not a generation of idiots. This is a generation genius enough to know how to game the system by using cell phones to reconfigure how power works in the world.