Optimism about positive social change is waning but it shouldn't be.
In recent years, social change has made its way mainstream. No longer are only a select few dedicated people or groups shining necessary lights on worldwide issues of injustice and inequality, but rather a heightened sense of social consciousness has taken hold of populations on a global scale. Plain and simple, positive social change is becoming increasingly inherent to both the way we think and the way we choose to live our lives.
In order to better understand this growing movement, Walden University focused its 2014 Social Change Impact Report on people’s perceptions of the impact of their engagement in positive social change, surveying adults across Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Jordan, Mexico, and the United States.
While the study finds that the younger generation is widely believed to be more passionate about social change, it also shows that young adults look to their older counterparts to share their knowledge and experience within that sphere. Joshua Neuman, GOOD’s editorial director and curator of the annual GOOD 100, a globetrotting list of impressive individuals enacting social change on both local and global levels, points out that action is being taken by people from a diverse array of ages. “Though a millennial spirit seems to infuse this social movement, its demographics are actually multi-generational,” he says. Overall, in 2014, most adults (82 percent, on average, of all individuals polled) reported having participated in some sort of positive action toward social change in the past six months, whether it be utilizing digital technology to spread messages or donating goods, money or their services. Yet, it’s the case in several countries—like Brazil, China, Germany and the United States—where young millennials (18- to 24-year-olds) view their elders as less open to trying new ideas, and their younger peers as being more passionate about enacting change. Countries with younger populations—like India, Jordan, China, Brazil and Mexico—tend to lean more heavily on the belief that young adults’ involvement in positive social change is on the rise. In particular, this younger generation has zeroed in on the environment as one of the causes they champion the most, citing that action on this issue in other parts of the world will certainly have ramifications in their own respective countries.
[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]The gap between ‘acting’ and ‘thinking’ has closed. We now experience a global dimension to our local actions.[/quote]
Beyond environmental issues, though, social change agents around the world view their actions as interconnected and impactful on a global scale, with previous Social Change Impact Report studies showing that adults believe their efforts have some sort of ripple effect. “In the ‘90s, there was a phrase, ‘Act Local, Think Global,’ which summed up the social impact impulse of the day,” says Neuman. “But, for a millennial generation raised on the internet, the gap between ‘acting’ and ‘thinking’ has closed. We now experience a global dimension to our local actions.”
According to the study, half of adults think their efforts on behalf of local and global issues are having substantial impact, in regards to improving the lives of individuals in their communities as well as contributing towards the larger goal of creating a better world for the global population. Additionally, people also report believing they’re helping to influence the attitudes and actions of others in regards to improving people’s lives.
However, perceptions on making systemic change is where numbers sag in the study, as only 40 percent of adults, on average, believe they’re having a major or moderate impact on changing social structures and systems for the better. Brazil (70 percent of adults), India (63 percent) and Mexico (63 percent) have the highest rates of this sentiment, while Germany (17 percent), Canada (23 percent), and China (26 percent) are on the lower end of the spectrum.
Increasingly, adults who engage in positive social change say that it’s incredibly important that their involvement contribute toward long-term progress that will impact people’s lives in the future for the better, rather than enact immediate change. Nearly three-quarters of social change agents (73 percent, on average) believe actions should be geared towards the future versus 61 percent, on average, of adults who lean towards change that will improve individuals’ lives immediately. This emphasis on the future is the most apparent in China and Germany. “Now, people just want to know that their actions matter,” Neuman says.
Yet, while adults continue to value involvement and interest in positive social change, and most believe their actions can change the world for the better, the majority is still generally unsatisfied with the level and frequency of action being taken. “This year’s findings tell us that engagement in social change is highly valued, but that the majority of us feel that we—and others—could be doing more to create an enduring impact,” says Dr. Cynthia Baum, president of Walden University. Only 36 percent of adults, on average, are highly satisfied with how much they are personally involved with positive social impact, with people in Brazil (51 percent), India (47 percent) and Mexico (46 percent) being the most content with their frequency of engagement. But it extends beyond the individual. A mere 25 percent of adults overall are pleased with how often they perceive their fellow countrymen to be engaging in social change activities, and fewer than four in 10 adults are happy with the availability of opportunities to take action.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Higher education institutions should play an important role in fostering and sustaining positive social change by preparing change agents with the skills and knowledge to make a difference in their communities and around the world.[/quote]
What’s clear is that while the atmosphere in the social impact realm is active and positive on a global level, overall, the need and desire for more engagement, by more individuals is palpable. Issues will not improve on their own, or as a result of the work of a select few. Social change is a continual battle that must be waged collectively, and positive behaviors and attitudes must be imbued in the ensuing generations. “It’s not about altruism or charity. It’s more a lens through which you see your life and your mission, an orientation of one’s entire being,” says Neuman. Whether involvement comes in the form of volunteering, educating others about causes and issues, donating money, goods or services, every little bit counts.
“At Walden University, we believe that knowledge is most powerful when put to use for the greater good,” says Dr. Baum. “It’s a guiding principle that we take seriously and have since our founding in 1970, because higher education institutions should play an important role in fostering and sustaining positive social change by preparing change agents with the skills and knowledge to make a difference in their communities and around the world.”
In this age of increased connectivity and inclusivity, we are now—more than ever before—part of a global citizenry, where individual efforts can truly be felt on a global scale. Each and every one of us can do more; choose to look ahead, and have a hand in creating a better world for future generations. We can choose to influence our neighbors and peers to dive in and do their part, any part, knowing that each voice matters, each action contributes to a larger, collective effort. We can each have a hand in pushing our world forward together.