I went to college in the late 1990s, at the tail end of the decade of the slacker. Back then, you might have seen a few activists here and there on campus, but mostly we cultivated an aura of general apathy right down to the laces of our Doc Martens. It was okay to care vaguely about stuff like women’s rights or the environment, but it wasn’t necessarily cool to show too much enthusiasm. If you wanted to make a statement, you might scrawl something enigmatic on your t-shirt with magic marker, dye your hair pink, and leave it at that.
At risk of showing my age, I’ll just go ahead and say it: things have changed.
Just look at last week’s election. Researchers at Tufts just determined that 23 million young Americans voted this year—a record turnout, and about 3.4 million more young people than voted in 2004. Nearly one in five US voters was under age 30. And these votes helped shape the outcome of the election: Young people went for Obama by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, and according to the study, they “formed a major part of the winning coalition.”
And it’s not just politics that inspires them. At Oxfam’s CHANGE leadership training last summer, and at other Oxfam events around the country, I’ve met 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who speak out passionately about climate change, world hunger, or the crisis in Darfur. Not only are they informed about these issues, they’re actually motivated to go back to campus and do something to make a difference. Glance at this month’s Oxfam event calendar, for example, and you’ll see student-run Oxfam America Hunger Banquets taking place at colleges and universities around the country.
As someone who recently passed the old-age landmark of 30, I don’t really know the reason behind this shift in perspective. Maybe it’s because young people now grew up in a more fragile, difficult era than we did—a post 9-11, war in Iraq world, where no safe place could be taken for granted. Maybe it’s because the Facebook and YouTube generation shares an ingrained sense of global connection—and instant unity with others—that we never got to experience. Or maybe it’s just that activism is the new facial piercings and Manic Panic.
Whatever the reason, I’m completely cool with it.