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Seeking jobs with social value

A new wave of entry-level careerists ranks 'helping others' above getting ahead

By Sara TerrySpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 2001

When Wendi Adelson talks about making the world a better place, it's not just idle conversation. At 22, the recent graduate of Brandeis University already has put in almost a decade trying to do exactly that.

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Ms. Adelson's first venture into the nonprofit world was in junior high school, when she used her life savings of $200 to start a nonprofit organization that collected and distributed educational toys to children in daycare centers.

"I was volunteering in day-care centers, and it only took a little while to see that these kids didn't have very good educational tools," she says. "I thought how unfair that was, and, in my 13-year-old mind, I figured starting a nonprofit would be the best way to do something about it."

By the time she finished the project some five years later, she had raised about $18,000 in in-kind donations. She also received a full tuition scholarship to Brandeis, based on her community involvement. In college, she continued with her nonprofit activities, coordinating a Big Siblings program on campus and going to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she worked with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and with Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquival.

When she graduated this year, she took a job as a junior fellow at the nonprofit Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she continues to develop her long-term career interest in international affairs and the role of education as a means of development.

"I just really don't understand the point in feeding into a culture of constant consumption, where the point is to get a bigger car or to have more stuff to consume or collect," she says. "I think life's about how you relate to people, and what we do for each other."

Adelson is far from alone on her idealistic path. Experts in education, employment, and social work say that more and more young people are turning to careers that offer social value - either through nonprofit organizations, or through a wide variety of business options.

"Quite simply, these are people that want to make a difference," says James Austin, a professor at Harvard Business School and chair of the Initiative on Social Enterprise, a business school program that began in 1993.

"I've watched this for over 30 years at the business school, and there is absolutely an increased momentum now," he says. "There's a strong upward trend in students' interest in social sector issues, and in trying to find ways to be engaged with those. It's a really active interest in doing something about the larger sets of issues that confront society."

That trend, which observers say accelerated across the country during the 1990s, is expected to increase as the so-called "Millennial Generation," (sometimes defined as those born after 1982), comes of age and enters the job market.

According to Neil Howe, an expert in generation studies and co-author of "The Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation," this group of young people differs markedly from its "Generation X" predecessors and their highly individualized sense of self.