My Summer at ACE: Discovering the REAL Potential of Gen Y

This blog post is written by Adrian Kerester, ACE Oakland’s summer intern.

"Increased educational attainment, advances in technology and the spread of information have made this generation the best educated, most connected, and most informed in history. They are rightly angry that while others were deemed too important or too big to fail, they are considered too small to matter.” – Kofi Annan on International Youth Day, 2013

I arrived at ACE Headquarters in sunny Oakland, California this summer ready to dive in and explore top marketing strategies to capture the hearts and souls of today’s teenage demographic. Instead, I was approached with a slightly different project. “You’d be surprised how often we get asked why ACE works with teens and how youth are contributing to climate solutions.” Maria, our Director of Development at ACE, explained to me. I was shocked. The thought that anyone doubted the power and influence that youth have on social movements, let alone our culture and society as a whole, was surprising to me.

The wheels in my mind began turning and suddenly I was coming up with a flurry of examples of teens influencing peer behavior, trends, and elections but it was time to find the hard data points to prove what I knew to be true. So I dove in. I found that today’s teenagers are not just important to shaping the behavior and attitudes of those around them, they are absolutely crucial to launching any successful consumer brand or igniting a social movement. They play a central role in leading new trends, and they are key to influencing and changing the beliefs, habits and values of peers, family members, and society at large.

Here is my Top 5 list of why Millennial teenagers, representing 37 million Americans and roughly 13% of the total population have incredible potential to influence the climate movement.

Millennial Teenagers are:

1. Constantly Connected
2. Influencers of Peers and Family Members
3. HUGE Spenders
4. Active and Eager to Have an Impact Outside of School
5. Confident They Can Make a Difference

1. Millennial Teenagers are Constantly Connected

It probably won’t blow your mind when I tell you that this generation of “Digital Natives” is constantly plugged in to a multiplicity of internet-capable devices and is constantly communicating and interacting with peers, family members and strangers alike in the virtual world online. More wired than any generation before them, Millennials never miss an opportunity to check-up and follow the activities and choices of their peers and celebrity heroes, update their statuses, or share their opinions and experiences. They’re constantly posting photos and videos, submitting reviews on Yelp and other online peer review communities, sending out Twitter blasts, and are liking and often commenting on articles, fan pages and the content that others post on various social media sites.

This uber-connectedness is game-changing for the movement of governments, industry, organizations and communities working to restore our climate to balance. For a movement that knows that time is everything, that the moment to boldly curb CO2 emissions is now, the assets Millennial teenagers offer—from action-readiness to digital agility to networks—are essential. It makes me reevaluate the implications of teenagers being constantly plugged in, posting, commenting, liking, and reviewing. I think it’s bigger than we can even imagine at this point in time. By investing in a demographic whose instinct is to share who they are, what they think and what they like with the millions of other teenagers globally as well as the rest of the population who regularly signs on to social media sites, we have the ability to spread our ideas and values to an audience that is hundreds of times greater than those we initially reach.
2. Millennial Teenagers are Influencers of Peers and Family Members

Teenagers rely heavily on one another to determine what’s “cool:” what role models they should look up to, what behaviors to emulate, what they should be wearing, what new gadgets they should carry and most importantly, what they should care about. In fact, studies show that more than 80% of teens rely on their peers for new trends.

From researching teenage behavior, I was really surprised that the increased peer influence most of us experience during our high school years actually has a biological explanation. The four-year period during high school is a defining time as it is characterized by the final crucial stage in an individual’s cognitive development. In other words, 14 is the “magic age” when an individual begins to engage in conscious critical thinking thought-processing and make decisions based on informed decisions. This explains why individuals begin to challenge the status quo and question their parents’ behavior.

Recognizing the power of peer influence has huge implications for the Climate Change Movement. By inspiring even just a select few teenagers to take action and adopt environmentally conscious behavior as “cool,” the ability to change the behavior, habits and attitudes of thousands if not millions of tomorrow’s leaders becomes more tangible. By harnessing their peer influence capacities, it’s possible for youth-powered climate solutions to go viral.

3. Millennial Teenagers are Huge Spenders

According to recent research report by TRU Insights, the purchase power of global teens (numbering 641 million) exceeds $819 billion dollars. That number blew my mind. To put this in perspective, that is more than every teenager in the world spending $1,250 annually. In North America, the amount of money spent per teenager measures over $3,000 per year as 37 billion Millennial teenagers wield roughly $118 billion dollars annually.

Recognizing the power of influence that teens wield over another as well as home in the context of how much purchasing power they hold is central to understanding how BIG of an impact this demographic can have. Here is the action continuum I can’t stop thinking about: First youth begin practicing environmentally conscious behaviors at school, then they demand a sea change of habits at home and with their peers, then teens make smart choices as consumers, putting their dollars toward the most sustainable and climate-focused companies, and then as active citizens, they demand the political leadership that will make climate and healthy communities a priority.

4. Millennial Teenagers are Active and Eager to Have an Impact Outside of School

Community service requirements and expectations from teachers, parents and peers encourage students to start community clubs, join community based organizations and contribute or even lead local impact stories. It is their participation in these community-based organizations that many teenagers report as being the most fulfilling aspects of their day. Through providing spaces where younger generation can contest the status quo and devise alternatives, these organizations engage high school students in a process of sharing ideas and working together on community-based projects. These experiences, often described as “rewarding,” “exciting,” and “inspiring,” fosters further curiosity and stimulates ambition.

Enabling students to harness their energy, imaginations, optimism and creative spirits to explore alternatives and solutions to pressing local, national and global issues, extra-curricular clubs and community-based organizations simultaneously combat the issue of pessimism and general paralysis regarding these complex issues that tends to set in and increase with age. Believe it or not, it is through participation in these extra-curricular activities that students become most inspired to start a community project or launch a local campaign on their own. Teenagers are eager to take up the challenge to help out in the community and they thrive off of the opportunity to exercise independent thinking and problem solving in their quest for a sense of self.

5. Millennial Teenagers are Confident They Can Make a Difference

Despite the growing number of problems we seem to be facing in the world today and consequently the growing pessimism that seems to circulate around solving these complex problems, the Millennial teenager population is surprisingly optimistic about their ability to make a difference in their communities and even on the national level. Flipping through a survey report on the Global Millennial Population conducted by Telefónica, I discovered that 83% of U.S. Millennials believe that they can make a local difference and 52% believe that they can make a global difference. If believing is half the battle of achieving, than these numbers are more than promising.

From the moment we left the womb and entered the world, we Millennials have been raised to believe that we can accomplish anything. Every step of the way we have been recognized for our efforts and rewarded for even the smallest accomplishments. We are told that we are capable of great things and we’ve grown up in a world that has experienced incredible, unfathomable change through the development of technology. In this tech-age, anything truly is possible and our parents, teachers, counselors and even our favorite brands (think Nike’s Just Do It campaign) remind us every day of our potential to set high goals and achieve greatness.

As generation made up of ambitious individuals who possess a strong desire to positively effect change, who are excited to take on a challenge and who are eager to help solve complex problems, the teenage Millennial generation is already taking action and is influencing change. The more they witness their peers and classmates take action and make a big difference, the more inspired and optimistic they become. And the best part is that this inspiration extends beyond the classroom walls. Since this demographic is already constantly plugged in to the web and is connecting and sharing with peers through various social media channels, they have greater access to the success stories of other individuals are constantly inspired with new ideas of how to take action, which they are encouraged to share with friends, family members, and teachers at school.

Youth Impact is All Around Us:

When I began researching youth impact stories I didn’t have to look far to find countless examples of this Millennial teenage demographic taking responsibility, inspiring action, and changing the world. Reading the numerous stories about young teenagers and high school students as key influencers with the imagination and the confidence to create meaningful and lasting change and taking the initiative to contribute to the climate change movement in ways both big and small was incredibly inspiring. It’s amazing what young people can do with the right support, tools, encouragement, and confidence and it’s amazing that the rest of the world has yet to decide that this demographic is worth investing in.

Ann Makosinski Ann Makosinski

From fourteen-year-old Alec Loorz who, in 2008, created Sea Level Awareness Posts in his community to spread awareness of the dangers of climate change and rising sea levels, started a non-profit called Kids vs. Global Warming, and wrote a Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuel to his CA Senator Barbara Boxer; to ten-year-old Cassandra Lin who started the non-profit Project Turning Grease into Fuel in 2008 to use leftover grease from restaurants and an alternative energy source to heat the homes of low-income residents in her home state of Rhodes Island and who helped draft and introduce a state bill that mandates that all businesses have to recycle their oil; to fourteen-year-old Erich Christian who created a biodiesel production facility at his high school in 2007; to seventeen-year-old Britany Trilford who spoke at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June of 2012, addressing the world’s most powerful leaders and demanding meaningful action global climate change; to thirteen-year-old Devin Shroeder who launched a Take Back the Tap campaign in his New Hampshire community in 2010 to educated individuals about the dangers of plastic water bottles and encourage them to drink tap water instead (a campaign that has subsequently grown to other communities and college campuses around the country); to fifteen-year-old Ann Makosinski who just this year invented a battery-free LED flashlight that is powered by the heat from her hand – this generation of teenage Millennials is constantly proving themselves to be a generation of change-makers.

A Final Note:

What I didn’t expect to find in my research was the true size and scale of impact that young people are already having on the world around them. We can’t ignore that high school students will quickly become the new generation of young voters, that they are shaping behaviors around them and influencing decisions at home. From playing central roles in the Civil Rights movement and the Arab Spring, to fueling Hip Hop (an entire movement dedicated to challenging the status quo) young people have always been key influencers in social movements throughout history. Like those who came before them, this generation of youth is becoming the optimistic face of our future. I guarantee they will solve the climate change problem in addition to the vast number of other pressing issues that we are facing if they are given the right knowledge and have access to the right tools when they are young.

From the hard facts and data points to the stories and news headlines of young people influencing change and making a meaningful impact in the climate change movement, my research for ACE this summer provided me with a new energy and optimism about the future and further inspired to make my mark on the world. While I am no longer a teenager, I can say that I am proud to be a member of the Millennial generation and I am looking forward continuing my involvement and commitment to the climate change movement as I head back to school this fall.