For a few years now, our researchers at TomorrowToday have been predicting what Generation Y might do when they grow up. This generation was first dubbed “The Millennials” by Neil Howe and William Strauss (see this book, for example), and were defined as the generation who would graduate High School in the new millennium (born from 1984 to 2000). Our team, who look more globally rather than simply at American culture, suggest that they are best defined as the generation born after 1989. We’ve also called them the “Digital Natives” as they have lived their whole lives with text messages, emails and the world wide web.

However you define them, the oldest of them is now in their mid twenties. With an education behind them, and those character defining young adult years in full swing, we’re finally seeing what we’ve been predicting for some time: this generation is going to be a generation that is civic minded, activist, take-no-nonsense and will work together to activate their communities for causes they believe in.

All around the world, we’re seeing evidence of this. The #occupy movements that started in New York, spread across the US and into Europe were a start. Yes, they might not have had their goals and aims sorted out clearly at the start, and didn’t have the Boomer-savvy to make a huge impact, but they nevertheless got a generation onto the streets and chanting about something. Secretly, I believe, most Baby Boomers were actually quite happy to see this. For most of the last two decades, Generation X (born in the 1970s and early 80s) have been a “whatever” generation, too pragmatic to get too worked up about anything, and certainly not idealistic enough to hit the streets in protest. The great protests of the 1960s were becoming a distant memory, especially for American Boomers. But now the kids have started it up again.

In some parts of the world has been more than just a mild nuisance. The Arab Spring last year saw revolutionary change sweep across North Africa and the Middle East. The youth in Iran are bubbling and waiting for an opportunity to make more of their “Green” revolution. We see this all over the world, actually. Young people rioted in London last August. There have been almost constant marches in Spain by young people desperate to find employment. These are not games these kids are playing now.

But more recently, Generation Y activists have emerged elsewhere. And the corporate world really does need to take notice of this. Four examples from this past year will suffice, but there are many more (in fact, I’d love to hear your examples in the comments section below):

Kony 2012

Whatever the merits or demerits of this campaign (and there has been plenty of speculation and discussion about it), there is no doubting its impact and reach. Over 100 million views in just a few months, and a resolution from the US Senate supporting the campaign to find and bring Joseph Kony to justice.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala is the 14-year old Pakistani girl who was gunned down by the Taliban because she was attending school, and also because of her growing international profile that came from writing a blog (which she started at age 9) and being in a documentary on what it is like being a girl in Taliban-controlled parts of the world. She survived the shooting, and is still recovering. Read more on her story here.

Starbucks in the UK

A few weeks ago, it was revealed that a few multinational companies, like Google, Amazon and Starbucks, were not paying any corporate tax in the UK. While this is not illegal (they are completely within all the relevant tax laws), there was outrage from the average UK taxpayer. Starbucks became the lightning rod for action, and in many parts of the UK, normally full coffee shops have been quite empty. When I wrote about this on my Facebook page, I generated quite a lot of discussion. There were two types of responses.

The first stated clearly that the task of a company was to maximise shareholder wealth, and therefore it had a duty – a responsibility – to reduce tax to as close to zero as possible. They clearly saw Starbucks’ machinations to take their corporate profit out of the UK to Switzerland and Luxembourg as clever and the right thing to do. The second type of response found this immoral. Legal, yes, but unacceptable to everyone living in the UK who wasn’t a Starbucks international shareholder.

And so, thousands of young people decided to reduce or even abandon their Starbucks routines. They know that customers do have power, and that the best type of message to Starbucks was one that hit their cash registers.

The Starbucks annual report for 2011 says: “We have always believed the way to build a Great, Enduring Company is to Strike a Balance between Profitability and a Social Conscience”. Well, a growing group of British young people are now testing how committed Starbucks UK is to it’s British social conscience. They’re not playing around either. This could really hurt Starbucks.

Exxon Hates Your Children

Aimed at influencing American policy during the current Doha climate change talks, this incredibly hard hitting campaign has seen a national bus tour and student activism across many campuses across the States. Have a look at their YouTube advert, which they hope to get funding to flight on TV:

The Kids Aren’t Playing Around Anymore

All of these examples illustrate the power that is now in the hands of individuals, and how a newly connected and interconnected world can magnify a message. There are many more examples available.

The message from our research team is simple: take these kids seriously. They are activists. They are ethical consumers. They want to change the world, and believe that they can. And they know that their words, their actions and their small groups of friends are more powerful than they’ve ever been before. They also know how to use social media to their benefit. They’re not scared of anyone.

A more positive attitude might be to find ways to tap into this new generation, and show them your commitment to the planet and to a social conscience – not as a papering-over marketing campaign, but as a genuine part of your real values. If companies are people, as Mitt Romney and the Republicans insist, then they need to be less pathological and more contributing to the communities they serve. Well, if you want young people as customers, that is.

Please share your stories of youth activism in 2012. I’d love to hear them.

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