If you believed the hype, you’d never trust anyone under 30. The plight of jobless, seemingly directionless 20-somethings has been a favourite focus for mainstream media, most notably the New York Times, in the past year. The coverage painted Millennials—people born in the late 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s—as an attention-deficit, arrested-development generation sure to inspire “kids these days” groans from boomer parents.
But with its youngest members in their tween years and its oldest members reaching their early 30s, the cohort also known as Generation Y is still in the process of defining itself. Vancouver’s Gen Why Media Project is a new-media hub that aims to create an alternative narrative of Generation Y through the eyes of its members. The project explores what Gen Yers are doing to address the convergent environmental, social, and political challenges of this era.
“We’re looking around at our peers and saying, ”˜This world that’s been created for us doesn’t work. The social structures don’t work. Let’s work together and create something completely different,’” said 25-year-old Fiona Rayher, who cofounded the project with 27-year-old Tara Mahoney. The two spoke with the Georgia Straight over dinner at Rhizome Café.
Rayher and Mahoney met last year in class at the nonprofit Pull Focus Film School, which specializes in documentary filmmaking courses. United by shared interests in social change, social media, and the spirit of innovation they’ve seen among their peers, they founded Gen Why Media Project after coproducing a film on Generation Y for their class. Gen Why now consists of a series of online films, a blog, and project partnerships with social-change organizations like Rain City Strategies, the Common Sense Canadian, and Fresh Media.
The pair were keynote speakers at the TEDx Vancouver event in November 2010, and they hosted the first Gen Why Media party last month. Their next event, the Bring Your Boomers party, aims to foster intergenerational dialogue and collaboration, and is set to take place on March 12 at VIVO Media Arts Centre. Other current projects include an upcoming radio show on SFU’s CJSF and a feature-length documentary about members of Generation Y around the world. The film is scheduled for release in December 2012.
Their work is influenced by William Strauss and Neil Howe, social historians who wrote about the cyclical nature of American generations in their 1991 book Generations. Strauss and Howe’s generational theory suggests that four archetypes repeat themselves through history. “Hero” generations bloom out of times of crisis. The last hero generation of the 20th century was what Strauss and Howe call the G.I. Generation, one whose members grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II as young adults. They see Generation Y as a new hero generation. Its members came of age during the 9/11 attacks and are reaching adulthood in the era of peak oil.
Rayher describes her generation as less consumer-oriented and more community-minded than previous ones. “We care about the environment, a different kind of politics, a new economy,” she said. “We care about art that’s accessible.” The group’s outward focus, according to her, is a response to the global crises that contextualize its members’ experiences.
“Our hypothesis is that the consciousness of the generation is global,” Mahoney added. She says Gen Y’s connectedness through social media and online communities has driven a shift in young people’s notions of community building and democracy, ideas she hopes to explore through the documentary process.
Kevin Millsip delivered a keynote speech at the inaugural Gen Why Media party in January. At 41, his work in youth engagement includes almost a decade spent as executive director of Check Your Head, a Vancouver-based global youth education network. He currently works as the Vancouver school board’s sustainability coordinator and as director of Next Up, a youth leadership program focusing on social and environmental justice.
“It’s absolutely certain that we’ve impacted the planet in enormous ways,” Millsip said by cellphone. “The job we have to do, collectively, is huge. No single group of people—a cohort, generation, whatever you want to call them—is going to be able to turn this situation around on its own.”
Millsip applauds the innovation of the Gen Why Media Project, but he’d like to extend its spirit of social change to people of all ages, who he said have the potential to be part of the “U-Turn Generation”. “Our generational mandate is to turn us around from the direction we’re headed,” he said. “In a storm, you need all hands on deck.”
The Gen Why Media Project shares an ethos with Fresh Media, a Vancouver-based organization that celebrates independent media. Fresh Media’s 29-year-old cofounder Steve Anderson is also the national coordinator of OpenMedia.ca, a Vancouver nonprofit best known for its recent campaigns against usage-based Internet billing. He met Rayher and Mahoney during the preliminary stages of the Gen Why Media Project, and the two now sit on the Fresh Media advisory board.
“We’re in this unique moment in time where we can reimagine media, we can remake what it is,” Anderson tells the Straight over coffee in the Woodward’s complex. For him, Gen Why’s bold optimism is one of the project’s most distinguishing qualities.
“Optimism is the most revolutionary act that we can engage in right now,” Mahoney said. “It’s a choice,” Rayher added. “It’s our tool for change.”