By Buck, Wiliam R.; Rembert, Tracey C.
E Magazine , Vol. 8, No. 5
Awakening to the sounds of The Chemical Brothers, Jennifer Rivera, 27, flips back the covers and begins her day. After indulging in a four-minute shower, feeding the orphaned cat her ex-neighbors left behind, fixing her lunch and donning hastily-grabbed clothes, she dashes out the door to catch the subway to her job as a first-grade teacher for the City of New York. After work (and a field trip to a community recycling center where she shows her students the importance of the three Rs), Jennifer volunteers at the community garden on 9th Street. She also does river cleanup on the Hudson on weekends, finds time to spare for The Literacy, Project on Thursday nights, and grocery shops for her 94-year-old landlady each Sunday morning. When asked how she finds time to get it all done, Rivera replies: "It makes me happy doing things for others, for my community. There are so many things that are wrong with this country, and this is my part at setting things right."
The key to getting things done, her generation believes, is grassroots action, not lip service. Rivera is one of a growing number of young adults that has moved beyond the hallmark issues of Baby Boomers - "recycling, saving whales and hugging trees" - and onto a wider range of concerns. She says neglected neighborhoods, declining educational standards, environmental degradation and immoral politicians, along with the Internet and "a great entrepreneurial spirit," are responsible for influencing her generation the so-called Generation X.
"Generation X" was first a punk band in the early 1980s. But it wasn't until Douglas Coupland's similarly titled novel that the term made it into Time, Newsweek and Fortune as a description of the seemingly apathetic children of Baby Boomers (born between 1945 and 1965). In the years since, the term has become the much-loathed namesake of some 50 million Americans born in the late 60s and 70s. X'ers themselves insist they are anything but the "slackers," "hackers," or uncaring, body-pierced youth portrayed in mainstream media. They are boldly proving that today's young adults have purpose, determination and a plan for changing the face of America, one neighborhood at a time.
Where, then, is the environmental movement heading as Generation X increasingly replaces its parents in key leadership roles?
Adam Werbach (see Conversations, this issue), who last year became the youngest president of one of the oldest environmental organizations in America, feels the change is for the better. The Sierra Club, whose members are mainly in their 40s, needs to reach out to energized youth and use their skills for building better communities, Werbach says.
Young adults are starting to take action in a big way. Community gardens, many started by youth groups, are turning abandoned industrial sites into beautiful public spaces. College students can be seen emailing, faxing and lobbying for better education, cleaner air and water, and the end of corporate polluting. Twenty somethings are influencing consumers by starting eco-companies and selling environmentally responsible products. "I think we understand our historical responsibility, in terms of being the generation that makes or breaks it," says Danny Kennedy, 26, who became an eco-activist at age 14 in his native Australia.
Additionally, service leaders agree they're experiencing significant increases in young adult volunteers. According to a 1992 survey by Independent Sector, an organization that monitors volunteerism and philanthropy, almost half of 18- to 24-year-olds volunteer, a figure which has been climbing steadily since 1988. X'ers themselves feel the increase is due in part to economic hardships during their teen years, along with a decreasing sense of community. "What I find a lot of the time is that if youth aren't involved, it's because they don't know how to get involved," says Angela Brown, a recipient of the International Human Rights Award who began fighting a proposed PCB landfill at age 13. …