Ana Liss | A challenge for millenials

October 11, 2010

This year, Penn students have a great opportunity to get engaged with the community outside campus borders. The Penn Public Policy Challenge — headquartered at the Fels Institute of Government — is an interdisciplinary competition open to undergraduate and graduate students, now in its second year.

Modeled after the Wharton Business Plan Competition, the first-of-its-kind contest affords students the opportunity to propose their own solutions to public policy issues facing Greater Philadelphia. Last year, teams came up with ideas to improve high-school graduation rates, increase prisoner access to vocational training and stimulate green job creation. It’s a resume builder and a networking opportunity, and teams stand to win $5,000. More importantly, they have a chance to flex their millennial muscles.

Described as the coddled, tech-savvy “me” generation, millennials have gotten some bad press lately. Aside from the summer 2010 New York Times profile of a 24-year-old New Englander who’d been living with his parents during the two years he’d spent after graduation “looking” for a job, other articles have taken a more generalized approach at critiquing Gen Y.

“What have you millennials — the 50 million Americans born between 1980 and 1995 who are becoming adults at the start of this new millennium — given us?” posited Hudson Valley columnist Steve Israel last week in the Middletown Times Herald-Record. “Nada — except the smug expectation that we should give you more.”

Huh? The millennials I know are energetic, hard-working and competitive. We see a smaller world than our parents did, one with limited job security. We value education, understanding the need for practical skills to get ahead in the workplace — or just into the workplace. We’re great multitaskers who type — and think — fast and progressively. We want to work. We want to be given a chance. And, like it or not, we’re poised to take the reins in Washington D.C., in Harrisburg, in Albany, in Sacramento … ultimately, the reins of the future. We almost already have (see Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, or Princes William and Harry).

A more positive headline caught my attention this week.: “From Facebook to Government: Can Millennials Increase Government Popularity?” In the Governing magazine article, John Della Volpe calls millenials “a generation of passionate, results-oriented, civically-minded young people who can improve the way government operates.” He made the argument that 60 percent of the federal workforce is 45 or older, with similar situations facing governments at the state and local levels. No wonder there are so many lawn signs lining Locust Walk claiming Uncle Sam wants us to send in our resumes. In short, there exists an unprecedented opportunity for our generation to step in and change the game in government.

Because you’re a Penn student, you’re among the best and brightest echo-boomers (the 14.5-percent acceptance rate is good evidence). Have you thought about using your skills to make federal, state and local government more efficient, solve the public employee pension crisis or make education and health care services more equitable? The Public Policy Challenge fulfills a legacy of Penn’s founder, Ben Franklin, who had the power to get things done because he thought outside the box, enlisted the help of key supporters and saw his ideas through.

Thinking outside the box is undoubtedly a millennial characteristic. Enlisting the help of key supporters? We’ve mastered the art of social networking. And seeing ideas through? One of the key Gen-Y traits is that we’re practical and results oriented. We should celebrate our quirks and hone our skills rather than condemn them. Young, sharp brains — and quick thumbs — are critically needed in the world of public policy today.

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