How America's millennials are redefining citizenship

How America's millennials are redefining citizenship
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The immigration debate looms large over Washington. It shut the federal government down twice in one month, and has stymied the Senate. Even beyond the DACA impasse, other immigration fights are looming, like the fight over whether United States residents should be asked if they are citizens on the 2020 census.

But why should immigration so dominate our politics? Is it really the deepest problem we face?

In a sense, yes. At a time when civic engagement is measurably declining in the U.S. and worldwide, citizenship itself is a flashpoint. The question of who gets to participate fully in society, who has legal status in it, and who doesn’t, has become a symbolic linchpin of our divisive politics.

Today's immigration controversies point to deeper issues around citizenship and civic engagement. We’re living through radical, epoch-making changes in the very concept of citizenship. The more fundamental dilemma confronting us, beyond who’s in and who’s out in any one country, is how many of us can participate meaningfully in a world transformed by technology and globalization, and increasingly characterized by rapid, omnidirectional change.


Subterranean anxiety over that bigger question is likely fueling the politics of exclusion around immigration. But it could ultimately be unifying rather than divisive, because it’s a problem that affects us all, cutting across all demographics and geographies, and the solution must be cross-cutting, too.

Around the world, in developed and developing economies alike, technology is advancing faster than we can adapt. It is fast rendering repetition-based jobs obsolete, along with the top-down management and knowledge structures that organize them. Blue-collar and white-collar career paths are getting disrupted and phased out. Over half of today’s schoolchildren will do new types of jobs that don’t exist yet.

The world now emerging demands new ways of living and working together to keep pace with the changes. Anyone with a smart phone now has access to unlimited information and mass communication that were previously the exclusive province of a few elites. We’re all increasingly experiencing continuous, generalized change and disruption. But we all have the tools and the responsibility to get ahead of it, to master and direct those forces of change for good.

How does that change the standard of citizenship and civic participation? How do you define individual social responsibility in an age of universal social response ability, when virtually everyone can access the tools to make and lead scaled change? Since we all have these tools, aren’t we all responsible for using them to create beneficial social change?

That’s nothing less than a new definition of citizenship. But currently, young people aren’t prepared to step into it, because our education system and other institutions haven’t caught up.

Millennials, now America’s largest bloc of voters and consumers, are the first generation to adopt this new standard of citizenship, and much depends on their civic engagement. Yet they were educated for the old, repetition-based system, only to find it headed for extinction as they embarked on their careers. So far, that disconnect has meant they are less economically successful, and more disaffected, than their parents. That needs to change. Full citizenship in this century demands all young people be effective changemakers, fully engaged and fully invested in leading change.

How can we better prepare them for it?  More STEM education? More job training? Those are necessary, but not sufficient. The essential thing is to cultivate and hone empathy and empathy-based ethics in young people as the antidote to the outdated hierarchies of the old system. Instead of wielding or submitting to power, they need to learn to relate.

Technology-driven change will come at them so fast that following static rules and established authorities will be almost useless — rulebooks will be obsolete as soon as they’re written. Young people will need to rely on a highly developed sense of empathy and ethics to guide themselves through uncharted territory, and learn to work more effectively in collaborative teams, which we know are the crucibles of innovation. They’ll need to activate those skills by getting out of their comfort zones, mastering new situations in new ways, and making actual social change early, even while they’re teenagers.

These are the qualities that distinguish leading business entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or Robin Chase, and leading social entrepreneurs like those in my organization, the Ashoka network. But in the fast-emerging future, everyone will need them. The new KPI (key performance indicator) for any business and the new standard of citizenship in any household, classroom, neighborhood or nation, is how many of us are changemakers.

David Brooks is onto this. "Today, schools have to develop the curriculums and assessments to make the changemaking mentality universal," he wrote recently. "They have to understand this is their criteria for success."

Immigration remains a divisive issue because it concerns a gap between haves and have-nots of civic participation we have yet to bridge. But it’s is also a kind of proxy fight for a deeper divide we must close, between those who understand and practice changemaking as a new form of citizenship, and those who don’t.

Hon. Henry F. De Sio Jr. is the Global Chair for Framework Change at Ashoka, and the author of “Campaign Inc.: How Leadership and Organization Propelled Barack Obama to the White House.” He was deputy assistant to President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPolitics must accept the reality of multiracial America and disavow racial backlash To empower parents, reinvent schools Senate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats MORE and served a 2017 residency at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center on Youth As Agents of Transformative Change.