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Opinion

My 'Millennials' generation is busy reimagining a life of ethics

The Millennial Generation is less religious than either the boomers or even Gen-Xers were at our age. But don't be misled: Though we may go to church only on Christmas or celebrate Ramadan but skip the fasting, we are busily and earnestly engaged in reimagining the ethical life.

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Meanwhile, social media have made us more aware of tragedies at ever-greater speeds and among ever-widening circles. How does a teenager in Topeka, Kan., respond to the news that 68,000 people have just died in an earthquake in China? Our Facebook friends provide mini-morality plays 24 hours a day: If my classmate posts a status of "we are Troy Davis" – executed in Georgia in September despite a mass campaign about his innocence – does that mean I am Troy Davis, too? If #reasonstobeatmygirlfriend trends on Twitter, as it did just a couple of months ago, does that mean domestic violence has really been normalized? Should I care, or is this just a blip of mindless venting?

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And yet, with ever more complicated ethical knots to untangle, it seems we've never had so few formal tools. For instance, fewer young Americans rely on Scripture as a way to understand what we are reading, watching, and experiencing on a daily basis. Instead, as columnist David Brooks posits, we are "social animals," constructing modern-day moral codes from a wide variety of source materials.

Don't be misled: Though we may go to church only on Christmas or celebrate Ramadan but skip the fasting, we are busily and earnestly engaged in reimagining the ethical life.

Life-guiding beliefs and the behavior that grows out of them, contrary to some doomsday lamentation, are not dying. In fact, Millennials volunteer at higher rates than any generation in history.

In poll after poll, they express a deep desire to make the world a more just place. The notion of service – once defined by established charities, Sunday schools, and academic credit – is beginning to grow up and move outside institutional walls. It is being infused with a sort of rogue authenticity and independence.

J.K. Rowling superfans empower one another to apply themes from her books to real life – donating money, fighting bullying, and the like – through the Harry Potter Alliance. Young urbanites with small earnings pack rowdy source-funding dinners for artistic projects and call them FEAST. Business school graduates pioneer business models whereby one trendy pair of eyeglasses can buy someone both the cache of cool and a surge of altruistic serotonin: For every pair of glasses purchased from Warby Parker, the company invests in small vision businesses abroad.

Our moral imaginations, it seems, are being formed on new frontiers – in collaborative working spaces and online while watching TED talks and/or getting involved in microfinance projects at Kiva or Kickstarter.

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