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Young ‘social citizens’ profiled

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PaperDespite being labeled “the quiet generation” by some, people ages 15 to 29 are engaging in social activism and reaching unprecedented audiences through digital technology, a new report says.

The “Millennial” generation, which totals 77.6 million people and is the largest and most diverse living generation, is “uniquely positioned in today’s civic landscape,” thanks to a passion for change and new digital tools to implement it, says “Social Citizens,” a new study sponsored by the Case Foundation.

But the impact of youth activism through social networks and virtual communities has yet to be quantified or understood, says Allison Fine, senior fellow at Demos, a New York-based research and advocacy group.

“As communications technology and social media enable and inspire people — particularly youth — to increase interaction, much of this behavior has gone unrecognized,” she says in the report. “And worse, it has gone unappreciated.”

Written to generate responses, and with an accompanying blog to collect them, the report chronicles a generation of “experience seekers” who don’t trust the reporting of others, and “social citizens” equipped with innovative ideas and the collaborative mindset to enact social change.

Fine’s Millennials conduct their activism mostly online through a web of digital tools that extend beyond blogs and social networks to collective-intelligence sites, mash-ups, peer-to-peer networking, RSS feeds and wikis.

Young people tend to gravitate to causes with strong moral clarity, like the genocide in Darfur, over those with more ambiguous webs of historical origins and motives, such as conflicts in the Middle East, the report says.

But they still support traditional causes like the environment and health.

Today’s youth also shape their own entertainment culture and, increasingly, political campaigns, though government and public policy are generally less of a focus, Fine says.

She documents a passion for community-building among teens and 20-somethings, but says this generation prefers network leadership to hierarchies.

Pursuing the trend of merging nonprofit efforts for social change with for-profit enterprises, young people are shaping corporate behavior with the brands they buy, Fine says.

And they believe in the power of corporations for social change more than they trust in the effectiveness of government action.

“Specific policy outcomes are not a significant component for most Millennial activist efforts,” Fine says. “Social capital is the new commerce and the end result of many cause-related efforts spearheaded by young people.”

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