According to USA Today, TIME, and a plethora of other news sources, Generation Y (to which I belong) is all about community service. We believe in doing food drives, donating blood, reading to children, participating in street cleanups, raising money for charities, and just about anything else you care to think of. We prefer working for companies that actively engage in community service, TIME says. Even more, a survey included in USA Today states that, "61% of 13 to 25-year-olds feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world."
It has also been suggested that Generation Y naturally tends toward community service — it supposedly correlates perfectly with our learned tendency toward working as a team, developed through years of sports, group projects at school, and socializing. Working for the good of society comes as naturally to us as multi-tasking (which, incidentally, isn't nearly as effective as everyone thinks).
Sounds great, right? Generation Y is here to save the day, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. Well, this wave of community service that we’re currently riding is just as much a bubble as the housing market was, and the Internet before it. It won’t be too much longer before it pops.
First, I would submit that the above information, while encouraging, is distorted by a few factors. To start, community service has basically been required of us thus far. In my high school, there were countless service organizations, and students were practically expected to join one. There was Key Club, which performed standard community service; PAL (Peer Assistance & Leadership, if you were wondering), which helps at elementary schools; Friends, which assists with special education; the National Honor Society, which mandates community service for its members; Winner's Circle, which is anti-drug… the list goes on. I remember participating in (and dutifully recording) my community service not so much because I wanted to, but so that I could have a big, fat number to slap onto my resume for college applications. Were it not for subtle pressure from my parents, I doubt I would have accomplished even half of what I did in those four years.
One might wonder what the problem is with service that is the result of outside influence. Service is service, right? Well, here’s the rub: if we do community service out of a perceived obligation rather than desire, the number of us that still volunteer and serve will diminish as we get older. It’s so much easier to just sit and home and watch TV when (insert childhood authority figure) isn’t there guilt-tripping you into helping out.
I won’t deny that what Generation Y has accomplished thus far is impressive. I’m just skeptical as to whether or not we’ll keep it up.
Second, yeah, we do a lot of community service right now, but ten percent of the people involved do ninety percent of the work. If this isn’t quickly remedied, those that do help willingly (and there are a few) will get burned out.
Some would argue that such a proportion is representative of any sort of work in society, and that the ten percent who are veritable superheroes will be fine. It may be typical, but it shouldn't be. If there is any one area, one particular aspect of social activity where everyone should be contributing, it's in work that is mutually beneficial to all members of society.
If we really are as team-oriented as older members of society say we are (and I’m not sure we are), there’s a disconnect somewhere. We should be working for the good of the team as much as possible, even to the exclusion of our own needs. If we have a need for teamwork, it should have developed into a serious addiction at this point. If we did in fact have an addiction to teamwork, community service would be like crack cocaine for us. The conspicuous lack of Gen Y-ers lining up to volunteer at soup kitchens or homeless shelters tells us otherwise.
Also, I'd be willing to bet that much of what older adults see as community mindedness is little more than good intentions. You know that statistic from USA Today, the one that I quoted earlier about 61% of us feeling responsible for making a difference? Well, we may feel that strongly, but there isn’t sufficient action to back that up. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get excited about an issue, yet not actually do anything about it.
Case in point, I give you the "Causes" application on the popular social networking website Facebook. My younger sister has a cause that she proclaims to believe in on her profile page. I won't tell you what it is, because, honestly, that's irrelevant. Here's the point: the cause had 124,015 members at the time this was written, and a grand total of $330 donated to further the group. That works out to a grand total of $0.0026 cents per person. That’s right, .26 cents. Heck, I’ll be generous and round it up to .3 cents per person that is supposedly dedicated to this “Cause.” I’m not trying to say that monetary donations are the be all, end all of charitable work, but it sure is a good place to start, and Generation Y is sadly lacking. We might not be able to donate money quite as comfortably as older adults, many of whom have established careers and/or income, but any number of us could find ways to scrape together some cash for others.
Not all online forms of charity, or community service, or “causes” are like that. Many actually get things done, concrete things with discernible results in the real world. Most of them, however, are nothing more than electronic social groups for people to get together and make each other feel good that they’ve publicly announced their support for a particular organization.
I can’t help but wonder how much more community service would occur if every member of a cause on Facebook got off their computer and actually put a little time and effort in for the organization that they claim to hold so dear. Right now, I’ve got this image of community service as a big, strong river. These kids are the ones that sit on the river’s edge and watch everyone else swim past. They won’t jump in because they’re not sure if the water will be cold or not.
You know what? Sometimes the water is cold. For that matter, sometimes it’s freezing. Regardless, you can still swim in it, and help others in the process.
Maybe I’m being a little too harsh. That’s possible. On the other hand, I’m tired of everyone patting Generation Y on the back when I know how much potential we’ve got, and how little we’re making use of it.
If I could change one thing about the world today, I’d pull a Wizard of Oz and give Generation Y a healthy dose of courage. We are one massive, conglomerate Cowardly Lion. As a group, we’ve got a lot of strength, size, and focus right now. We know that we want to improve both our own communities and society at large. We dream big, and we know how to make things happen. There’s just one problem: we’re sitting around waiting for somebody to magically bless us with some courage. We’ve got the best of intentions, but a painfully obvious lack of initiative and action. The world is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket, and all we can manage to do is watch idly and call out a bit of helpful advice as it races past us.