Today's American young people feel a deep connection to people in Tibet and Darfur, want to hold corporations accountable to environmental standards and worker justice, and value the role of government in meeting our shared needs. Yet the Internet tools that help Millennials appreciate our interconnectedness may actually erode the community values they seek.
The Millennials, or the cluster of young folks born roughly between 1980 and 1995, were raised between two conflicting phenomena. On the one hand, they have grown up with new technologies that have helped the world connect more easily; on the other hand, they have been raised alongside the rise of hyperindividualism in American culture that has isolated us from each other and the world around us.
As the Millennials were learning to walk, Ronald Reagan proclaimed that the only "excuse government has for even existing" is to protect the rights of individuals, not the larger, common good. Having once played a cowboy on the silver screen, Reagan helped transform America into a radical Darwinian Wild West. Industries were privatized, public school budgets and other social programs slashed, Wall Street given free rein. Reagan's British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, went a step further, declaring, "There is no such thing as society." In the neoconservative political vision of the era, people were left to fend for themselves.
At the same time, the world became more interconnected than ever. Technology allowed the Millennials not only to imagine the children in Ethiopia, but to actually see them and, eventually, become their friends on Facebook. Changing demographics made the new generation more comfortable with difference and diversity than their parents. Plus, technological connectivity opened the door to economic interdependence.
The political aims and vision of the Millennials clearly buck the Reagan "rugged individualism" in favor of the community values of connectedness, inclusion, and mutual responsibility.
But social movements are based on collective action. The American Revolution, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and every significant social change movement in between and since has relied on community organizing, building mutually responsible communities to challenge the status quo.
On their own, for example, none of the activists in the civil rights movement had sufficient power and influence to end segregation. Coming together in local committees, led mainly by young people, they used the tools of face-to-face community organizing, developing shared strategies to address shared problems. And they took shared action; in sit-ins and Freedom Rides, they formed groups that were more than the sum of individual parts.
By contrast, Internet activism is individualistic. It's great for a sense of interconnectedness, but the Internet does not bind individuals in shared struggle the same as the face-to-face activism of the 1960s and '70s did. It allows us to channel our individual power for good, but it stops there.
This is great for signing a petition to Congress or donating to a cause. But the real challenges in our society – the growing gap between rich and poor, the intransigence of racism and discrimination, the abuses from Iraq to Burma (Myanmar) – won't politely go away with a few clicks of a mouse. Or even a million.
Millennials are poised to lead us all to reject the hyperindividualism and isolation that has dominated our recent past and recognize the deep interconnectedness and mutual responsibility that is our present and future.
The lone cowboy story was a myth. Our greatest accomplishments, as individuals and as a nation, have almost always come from hitching our wagons to others and working together, not just in going it alone.
To avoid eroding the values Millennials so appreciate, and to truly influence the world around them, they must transform their online activism into off-line communities and build an effective movement for change. From church basements to campus meetings to voters' doors, Millennials need to add face-to-face action to their innate sense of community.
Sally Kohn is a senior campaign strategist with the Center for Community Change, which runs Generation Change, a training program for the next generation of community organizers.