In a recent post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, Lara Galinsky discusses the surge in popularityof social entrepreneurship as the career du jourof the Millennial Generation (generally agreed to be those born between 1983 and 2001). As the senior vice president of Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs, Galinsky has seen her fair share of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Millennials, eager to start organizations that will solve everything from poverty to pollution. Yet, Galinsky – despite or perhaps because of – her positionbelieves that not all Millennials should become social entrepreneurs. Invoking the Igbo proverb of “It takes a village to raise a child,” Galinsky arguesthat it takes an “entire ecosystem” to solve the world’s biggest problems. In order to succeed, social entrepreneurs need the support of fundraisers, designers, communications and development specialists to transform their bold ideas into reality. According to Galinsky, in order to harness the desire of this and future generations to be social change-makers:
We must move away from the antiquated concept of vocation, which emphasizes what’s in it for the individual: whether it will sustain their interest or bring them fame or fortune…They needn’t be founders of new organizations to have an impact on the world. But they should be founders of their careers. (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/not_everyone_should_be_a_socia.html)
It’s a logical argument and a lovely sentiment, but it ignores the obvious question of why? Why is this particular generation – the Millennials – so captivated and fixated on social entrepreneurship? The problems they want to solve have been around for decades, even centuries. Why now? Why this generation?
Call me pessimistic, but I don’t think this surge in social entrepreneurial spirit is due to the Millennial generation being more altruistic or socially conscious than their predecessors. In fact, I doubt that altruism plays a major role in the decision of most Millennials to pursue this career path. A recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology comparing the traits of Millennials, Generation X’ers, and Baby Boomers at the same age from 1966 to 2009 shows that Millennials place much greater value on money, image and fame than previous generations. Basically, Millennials are more “Generation Me” than “Generation We” (http://chronicle.com/article/Millennials-Are-More/131175/). This is a generation that has been raised to believe that they are “special” – that they can do and be anything they want. This is the generation that gave birth to the term “helicopter parent,” a generation hat has been prepped and primed from an early age to get the best grades, participate in the most extracurricular activities, attend the best schools, etc.
So when it comes to the Millennial obsession with social entrepreneurship, I can’t help but think that, to them, it represents just another notch on their belt of accomplishments, another step on the ladder to individual achievement and recognition. Millennials have spent their entire lives in the spotlight, at the center of their parents’ and their own individual universes. For many, I think social entrepreneurship provides an opportunity to remain in the spotlight, rather than assume a supporting role.
In her post, Galinsky admits that Echoing Green, and other organizations like it, “shines a bright light on social entrepreneurs, often making them stars.” Moving forward, though, she notes that Echoing Green will be “cutting the spotlight and raising the house lights” to focus more on the ecosystem needed for social enterprises to succeed. But when the lights come up in the house, will there be any Millennials willing to work backstage?