Millennials – or Generation Ys – have long been branded narcissistic, entitled and lazy. But with a growing number of Millennials trying their hand at social entrepreneurship for the benefit of others, Kate Jeremiah asks is the ‘Generation Me’ label really accurate?
There’s not a spare seat in sight at hip Melbourne restaurant Green Park tonight. The scent of perfectly roasted potatoes permeates the room as diners eagerly share stories over wine. Waitress Sophia approaches the table and delicately places down the chicken parfait and goat’s cheese salad. Then she pours two glasses of chardonnay with the precision of a brain surgeon.
Sophia is no ordinary waitress. She’s part of the Scarf program that has taken over Green Park this evening. Scarf provides hospitality mentoring and training to marginalised young people, many of whom are refugees or asylum seekers. Each season Scarf selects a new Melbourne restaurant to hold weekly dinners, which are attended by the general public.
Scarf was established in 2010 by young social entrepreneurs Hannah Colman and Jess Moran. The idea came to Colman while volunteering with a young refugee community alongside her job in hospitality. Many of the young people Colman met were unemployed and frustrated at being unable to break into the hospitality industry.
“These young people are really motivated, with a lot to contribute, but hospitality managers are not prepared to take someone on if they don’t have any experience or anyone to vouch for them,” says Colman.
So Colman and Moran created Scarf as a way to train young people in a relevant and up-to-date way, with a big focus on mentoring.
Sophia from Scarf. Photo: Peter Tarasiuk
Five years on and Scarf is thriving, with 70 per cent of graduates having secured paid employment in hospitality and other industries. The team is now looking to expand into Brisbane and Sydney.
Colman’s story is not unique. She’s among the growing number of Millennials – those born between roughly 1980 and 2000 – determined to right the wrongs they see happening in our world. Like many, Colman began by establishing a social enterprise or profit-for-purpose business.
The term “social entrepreneurship” has been around since the 1970s, but the sector has only gained momentum in Australia in the past decade. Research undertaken by Opportunity International Australia indicates the number of Australian-based social enterprises grew by 37 per cent between 2007 and 2012.
Sophia from Scarf. Photo: Peter Tarasiuk.
To support this growing sector, at least six Australian universities now offer social enterprise studies. Budding social entrepreneurs can also receive training and support via organisations established to nurture, develop and grow social enterprises such as Social Traders, School for Social Entrepreneurs and Impact Academy.
So why are Millennials, in particular, so motivated to start social enterprises for the benefit of others? Isn’t this the generation we’ve branded lazy, narcissistic and entitled?
Daniel Flynn, co-founder of award-winning social enterprise Thankyou, spoke to Deakin University students at the SeCo (Social Enterprise Collective) Conference recently about the emptiness he felt at the prospect of continuing his studies in construction project management.
“I wanted to get into business and I figured that when you’re successful that one day you give back. That’s where I was heading but it did feel quite empty. It felt particularly empty when I came across this stat that said that 900 million people in our world still don’t have access to clean water.”
Daniel Flynn. Photo: Victor Lau
Flynn never finished his studies. Instead, he went on to establish bottled water brand Thankyou with two of his university friends. Thankyou has since expanded its product lines and now provides safe water access, food and hygiene solutions in more than 15 countries. In 2012, Flynn was a Young Australian of the Year state finalist.
Flynn believes big corporates are struggling to retain Millennial employees because the generation is looking for something more than just “working for the man”.
“We want to do something meaningful,” he says.
Jose Adrian Gabriel-Camacho, from social enterprise incubator Impact Academy, agrees. “We don’t want to work from nine to five in a meaningless job,” he says. “We don’t want to work for a corporate that doesn’t solve any of the problems of the world.”
Twenty-five-year-old Isaac Jeffries’ motivation for moving from a successful job at ANZ into the social enterprise sector was simple.
“I discovered that finance doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning,” he says. “Finance for purpose I find incredibly interesting.”
Jeffries now works as a business model consultant at The Difference Incubator, an organisation that helps social enterprises become commercially viable.
Research suggests Millennials, more so than previous generations, are looking for a career with purpose, one that aligns with their personal values and beliefs. A study conducted by recruitment firm Hays found 72 per cent of Millennials will not apply for a role with an organisation if they do not believe in what it stands for.
Jan Owen, CEO of Foundation for Young Australians, is a passionate advocate of Millennials. In 2014, she penned a book, The Future Chasers, in which she shares the stories of 15 Millennial “change-makers”. Owen believes these change-makers “give lie to the public discourse which proclaims that Gen Ys don’t stick to things; don’t work hard; are self-obsessed and self-interested”.
Owen discovered these change-makers share a view that the status quo is flawed and they’re willing to invest extraordinary amounts of time and energy into achieving their vision for the world.
Owen highlights the role technology has played in supporting these Millennial change-makers.
“They are able to galvanise tens of thousands of people around their ideas, causes and issues,” she says. “They have a set of tools with which to build movements, create campaigns and bring about change through savvy and expert use of digital and social media.”
Tom Dawkins, CEO and founder of crowdfunding platform StartSomeGood, agrees.
“If you’re someone with a passion to make a difference, you have more tools and opportunities at your disposal than have ever existed in history to share stories, to connect with people who share your passion and to launch projects at low cost,” he says. “Millennials are the generation most native with technology.”
Crowdfunding, via websites such as StartSomeGood, has become a popular way for Millennials to raise money for the causes close to their hearts. It is a way for people to fund projects or ventures online by raising small amounts of money from a large number of people.
Crowdfunding helped 21-year-old Dan Poole raise $12,000 for his social enterprise, Crêpes for Change, which aims to fight youth homelessness.
“Without the success of our crowdfunding campaign, I couldn’t have created something quite to the scale that we are doing,” he says. “There would be no way that I’d be able to pay for that.”
Poole thinks it’s unsurprising that so many young people are interested in helping those less fortunate than themselves, because they are constantly shown these people’s stories through social media campaigns and the internet.
“People can much more easily become acquainted with ideas and opportunities to make a difference,” he says.
Social media and the internet have been fundamental to Scarf’s success. Without it, Colman admits it would not be able to so easily reach customers, prospective sponsors and host restaurants.
But is the need to pursue a career with purpose, coupled with the ease of influencing change afforded by technology, the only factor driving Millennials to try their hands at social entrepreneurship?
Dan Woodman, a lecturer in sociology at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, has been studying Millennials for seven years as part of his longitudinal study, Life Patterns. He has witnessed a real push for entrepreneurial attitudes as a way to deal with economic downturns and youth unemployment. He has also seen a trend for young people feeling the pressure to take control of their futures, in order to achieve success.
“You have to build that overall picture, almost like a CV of yourself that is going to give you all these options in the future,” he says. “Showing a bit of social entrepreneurship can help build that CV … It’s been a tendency of the US for a long time before Australia, but it’s coming over here.”
Indeed, the Generation We Not Me report on Millennials commissioned by the Australian telco Optus found that 32 per cent of Millennials volunteer because it enhances their CV or career prospects.
US author Jean Twenge is a long-time critic of Millennials. She surveyed 1.2 million Millennials to gain insight into their traits, behaviours and motivations, sharing the findings in her 2006 book Generation Me. Twenge states that Millennials are, in fact, less likely than previous generations to help the environment and to want to work in a job for the betterment of society. Twenge describes Millennials as tolerant, confident, open-minded and ambitious, but also disengaged, narcissistic, distrustful and anxious.
Dr Woodman disagrees with Twenge’s view that Millennials are narcissistic. “They’re not selfish if you look at all kinds of behaviours around volunteering and social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is one way of saying, ‘I don’t see what I want being done to make the world a better place, so I’m going to go out there and take an entrepreneurial attitude to it myself’.”
Daniel Flynn believes the “Generation Me” label is drawing on a very small percentage of examples, probably fuelled by the media. He agrees that on the surface Millennials can appear to be quite self-centred, but thinks that if you dig a bit deeper the majority actually want to change the things that don’t look right in the world.
According to Tom Dawkins, “It is the ‘Me Generation’. It’s the generation that’s taking responsibility for doing something about the problems that confront us. They’re saying, ‘I can do something about this, it’s my responsibility’.”
“From what I’ve seen at StartSomeGood, for a lot of Millennials ‘me’ is about contribution, not about taking or focusing only on their personal advancement, but, ‘How can I, me, make a positive difference for other people?’ ”
Hannah Colman thinks it’s pointless for people to perpetuate the stereotype of young people not being interested in issues and not putting themselves out there to influence positive change.
Maybe Colman’s right. Because regardless of how or why these Millennials are choosing to become social entrepreneurs, the fact remains they are making a huge impact on the world. And with their support, people such as Sophia from Scarf are living safer, healthier and more fulfilling lives.
Words: Kate Jeremiah