Michael Bernert turned down a job with McKinsey & Co. to launch a social venture with a fellow Duke student, Jamie Patrick, to help farmers in Liberia and Sierra Leone dramatically expand their productivity and profitability.
Sarah Marshall, a senior at KIPP Gaston College Prep, helped found a women's empowerment program to fight stereotypes as well as a youth philanthropy organization.
And Michael Howell wants to work for the United Nations following a trip to Brazil organized by Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute.
Welcome to Generation Z.
Born between 1990 and 2002, these 9- to 21-year-olds are just starting to define themselves. It's the most diverse generation the world has ever seen - comfortable within the global context and the challenges of working across boundaries. They are "digital natives" who have grown up deeply immersed in the web of technology and interconnectivity. They are motivated to serve, particularly through volunteerism, but appear to be following Generation Y's trend of political disengagement.
They are also facing one of the toughest economies we've experienced since the "Greatest Generation" of the Great Depression era, encouraging them to think about alternative career pathways as they struggle with the debt inherited from earlier generations.
This week, the Institute for Emerging Issues out of N.C. State is focusing its annual forum on "Investing in Generation Z." The N.C. Rural Center also recently launched the New Generation Initiative to challenge young people to get actively engaged in their communities. These are timely efforts as we consider what we want the future of our state to look like - and how we can harness the full potential of our emerging generation of leaders.
In his cover story for Fast Company magazine last month, Robert Safian writes, "In our hyper-networked, mobile, social, global world, the rules and plans of yesterday are increasingly under pressure; the enterprises and individuals that will thrive will be those willing to adapt and iterate, in a disciplined, unsentimental way."
Success will derive from the ability to constantly learn, adapt, synthesize new information, and work successfully across cultures. The "long job" is dead. Rather, the average person will have more than a dozen jobs and many distinct careers before "retirement" (itself an increasingly archaic concept). The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the top 10 jobs in 10 years are likely not invented yet.
Today's youths are uniquely ready for this new reality with skills that help them stretch across a number of fields - connecting dots and relationships as they go. Much the same way they collect and curate music and videos on their smart phones and build ever-growing networks of friends on Facebook, our young leaders are developing a portfolio of interests and seek out people and information to help support these interests. Bernert, for instance, is leveraging skills and relationships gained from an earlier internship with McKinsey to help him in East Africa.
Though we often tout the importance of creative thinking, collaboration and entrepreneurial action, our schools have been slow to adapt. Classroom learning often favors siloed subjects, experiential education is an exception, technology is frequently an add-on vs. an integral part of teaching and learning, and youth entrepreneurship is limited to academic understanding rather than actual practice. There are exceptions, including the breakthrough technology innovation in the Mooresville School District, the annual statewide youth-focused "Hop on the Bus!" business plan competition, and the Young Entrepreneurs Academy sponsored by the Laurinburg/Scotland County Chamber of Commerce. But are we truly equipping our students to be 21st-century leaders?
In a survey of 15,000 middle and high school students in 16 county public school systems, the N.C. Rural Center found, among other things, that young North Carolinians want to be part of improving their communities. As Marc Gmuca of Appalachian State University says, "One of the things I live by is that I want to leave the world better off than how I found it." But students like Gmuca often feel their voices are not being heard. Though they often want to stay in their home communities, necessity often means moving elsewhere.
How can we harness and retain the talent potential of Gen Z leaders like Michael, Jamie, Sarah and Marc?
One idea is to start with our schools and encourage and reward multidisciplinary thinking, innovation and collaboration.
Let's equip and empower students in our classrooms to be change-makers in our communities - inviting them to contribute and giving them the mentorship and capital to make their ideas a reality. We've got models to work from; we just need to bring them to scale. More ideas are being collected through the Emerging Issues forum this week, and we encourage you to join this important conversation.
Christopher Gergen is the CEO of Forward Ventures (supporting Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward), a fellow with Fuqua's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and co-author of "Life Entrepreneurs." Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com.