The Age of Ambition

Change the world. That’s what we said in the 60s. Now we read about today’s Generation Y as impatient and entrepreneurial, much less involved in politics than one writer or another would like. No marches on Selma. But there’s more than one way to change the world (that is, if anybody actually does). For some real stories along those lines, read Nicholas Kristof’s The Age of Ambition in yesterday’s New York Times.

With the American presidential campaign in full swing, the obvious way to change the world might seem to be through politics.

But growing numbers of young people are leaping into the fray and doing the job themselves. These are the social entrepreneurs, the 21st-century answer to the student protesters of the 1960s, and they are some of the most interesting people here at the World Economic Forum (not only because they’re half the age of everyone else).

It’s a reminder, generations don’t fit into generalizations. That’s X, Y, or whatever, and including us baby boomers too. You do things one effort at a time, one person at a time, not as a generation. Sorry; that’s obvious. He tells several real stories. It’s good reading.

For more on that, or another angle, try Quiet? Maybe. Complacent? Never. From the Huffington Post a couple of months ago, written by a 20-year-old college student:

Our generation is trying to change the world for the better; we have just learned that one way works better than others. In part it is our baby boomer parents’ fault (if it is a fault at all). More than other generations, we have learned that arguing with our parents works better than a full rebellion. A USA Today article says “Generation Y is much less likely to respond to the traditional command-and-control type of management.” “They’ve grown up questioning their parents, and now they’re questioning their employers.” As teenagers when we wanted to go out to a party we learned it was more effective to have an “open discussion” (ex-hippie parents like that phrase) instead of sneaking out the window. So we have learned to go through the establishment instead of protesting it. The authority we encounter on a daily basis seems much less authoritative than the one our parents did.

I was talking to a friend the other day about my career plans, which focus on socially conscious business, and she said something that clicked with me, and I believe a whole generation. She said we’re all just trying to change the world in our own way. Whether it’s by becoming business people, doctors, researchers, teachers, or lawyers we believe we can make a difference in our profession. Yes, we aren’t overthrowing the system, but don’t think we don’t care.

Maybe we are the quiet generation, but if you think that means we’re not going to change anything, I think you’re in for a big surprise.

It’s interesting to me that Kristof titled his piece “The Age of Ambition.” I think there’s a double meaning there. It’s not just now, this year, this decade; it’s also about the way people are. Who was it (I’ve seen it attributed to several thinkers) who said only a fool is not a leftist at 20 and only a fool still is at 40? That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it has a kernel of truth. Complacency is for older people.


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