Climate change is the number-one issue of concern among young Americans. That's one of seven major findings in the new Influencing Young America to Act 2019 report my colleagues and I released earlier today.
The second report in the Cause and Social Influence initiative I lead examines how the oldest members of Generation Z and the youngest millennials ("young America"), those Americans between the ages of 18 and 30, are influenced by and influence others to take intentional action on social issues and analyzes how those actions coalesce to form a community of support for specific social movements.
Social Issues of Interest
In our research, we define a social issue as an existing situation recognized as being counter to a generally accepted social value that can be mitigated through people working together to deploy community resources to change the situation.
The top five issues of interest to the young America (and the percentage that selected them) are climate change (30 percent), civil rights/racial discrimination (25 percent), immigration (21 percent), healthcare reform (20 percent) and mental health/social services (16 percent).
Social Movements of Interest
In our research, we define a social movement as a group of people working together to support the interests of a community whose lives are affected by a specific issue; the group often is unable to address the issue and achieve a satisfactory resolution without the support of dedicated community activists and constituents.
The top five movements of interest to young America are #MeToo (26 percent), #BlackLivesMatter (26 percent), #AllLivesMatter (24 percent), #HumanRights (24 percent ) and #MedicareForAll (23 percent). (Note that although climate change was the number-one social issue, it did not appear among the top five movements.)
Moving Young America From Awareness to Action
For me, the most fascinating findings of the study relate to a young person's journey from awareness to action. How do causes capture individuals’ interest in the first place and then move them to take the first step — and all the steps thereafter — toward support of an issue or movement? And how do causes successfully motivate followers to recruit others to support the movement?
We found that when young Americans initially learn about an issue in which they have some interest, their feelings of empowerment dramatically affect whether they continue on the awareness-to-action journey or choose to stay on the sidelines.
The most successful journeys typically involve an issue that strike a personal chord with individuals. And once young Americans learn more about an issue, most will act.
What about those who don't? Do some choose inaction out of apathy — or is something else involved?
When young Americans decide not to take action on an issue they care about, the most popular reasons they cite for not doing so are "I don't know what to do," "It's not my place," and "I can't make a difference." On the surface, these all would appear to reflect a certain apathy.
But I would argue they reveal the opposite of apathy. Few respondents in our research said they didn't care. Young Americans want to act; they just don’t know of or believe that they're capable of meaningful action.
That is the very definition of lack of empowerment.
Much of what's in the report reflects a strong sense of empowerment in young Americans. Most young people do act, and most say their actions are not prompted by someone asking them to get involved. Rather, it’s because they feel compelled — and empowered — to get involved.
The following are recommendations for how causes and nonprofits can use the findings of the new report to build support for their issue.
Recommendation #1: Take concrete steps to ensure that young Americans feel empowered by your cause or issue. Whether you're the leader of a cause or movement, a social entrepreneur, or the person responsible for social responsibility at your place of work, it's up to you to spark and/or reinforce young Americans' feelings of empowerment. You do that by regularly letting them know how they are helping to change things and by sharing stories of real people who have been helped. You also want to be sure to encourage your supporters to share with others why they are so passionate about your issue. A feeling of empowerment should power every step of the awareness-to-action journey, so keep that feedback coming.
Recommendation #2: Ask young Americans to do something to show their support. Then ask them again. When we asked research participants whether and what had prompted them to take action, they either said no one had asked them to take action or a person/organization had explicitly asked them to take action.
Is your cause or organization content to simply to "raise awareness" of your issue? Sorry, but that’s not enough for young Americans in 2019. They want to take action. They want to be told what they can do that will make a difference. It's up to you to share with them concrete opportunities to do so at every step along the awareness-to-action journey. And don’t forget to follow up, at each step of that journey, with the results of their support.
Recommendation #3: Be a positive, credible part of the online conversation around your issue. Young Americans are listening to the news media online, which means you need to be there, too. They're also all-too aware of the "fake news" phenomenon, so it's up to you to keep abreast of the conversations happening online around your issue, to share accurate information in those conversations, and to do what you can to address incorrect and inaccurate information.
Young Americans tend to trust nonprofit organizations and social movements. It's up to you to reinforce and leverage that trust by always demonstrating authenticity and credibility. As you deepen your listening, think about how you can position yourself or your organization as a subject expert (blog posts and free resources on your website are a great start). Just remember that you're a participant — one of many — in the online conversations happening around your issue and not the primary spokesperson for the issue. Keep your focus on the issue itself — and on all the things young Americans are doing to drive real change.
Influencing Young America to Act 2019 has a lot more to say about all of this. You can download it here.
Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, and lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence.