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Social issues are getting personal

April 21, 2021

I’ve talked in this space about how social issue engagement builds from what interests and engages us: we educate ourselves, get motivated to act, then look for like-minded people to join in pushing for change. In the recent past, research conducted by the Cause and Social Influence research team I lead has revealed that young Americans (ages 18-30) are concerned about social issues that impact others, including racial equity, climate change, hunger, and animal rights. But a third of the way into 2021, we're seeing a new twist.

Findings from the first Cause and Social Influence survey in 2021 reveal that the issues of most interest to young Americans right now are those that directly and personally affect them.

Empathy is a normal human trait

Being concerned about the well-being of others is the definition of empathy. Learning that countless number of our fellow Americans go to bed hungry each night motivates some of us to do what we can to address the immediate need and prompts others to do something to eliminate the root causes of hunger in America. Both reactions are normal and a necessary component of action for change.

Having empathy means we put ourselves in the place of another and try to share the feelings he or she is experiencing. But when an issue is relevant to our own situation — when we're the ones sharing, feeling, and experiencing the issue as our own — our empathy deepens to another level. We begin to understand what someone else is feeling because we've been or are in the same situation.

This is where many young people find themselves today. Previous research has shown that millennials and Gen Z are especially empathetic, and that their empathy leads them to be socially aware and active. In 2020, they (like many of us) took action on a range of social issues, including racial injustice, social isolation, and voting rights. Now, in 2021, they are finding that some of those issues have more personal relevance than others and have entered the stage of engagement where an issue's relevance to one's own situation is driving their engagement.

Empathy is directed inward

The biggest indicator of the shift? According to Influencing Young America to Act, Spring 2021, healthcare premiums now rank among the top three issues of interest to millennials and members of Gen Z. Given the pandemic's effect on healthcare systems, joblessness, and most every other aspect of life, that makes sense. And it certainly makes sense that it has raised concerns among young Americans about their own ability to be and stay healthy while financially supporting themselves.

Given that young people were already dealing with high levels of student debt and job insecurity, the pandemic and the health concerns it poses has underscored the precarity of their personal situations. And while healthcare premiums may not be a burning social issue, it is a very personal issue.

Fig.1.1_Cause and Influence_1Q201

Indeed, while healthcare reform as a general concept was of concern to young Americans in 2020, healthcare premiums only showed up in the top tier of issues for the first time in March 2021. Two weeks after President Biden expanded health insurance premium subsidies as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, 60 percent of our survey respondents said they believed the country was on track/totally on track -- though they were less hopeful about where things would be a year from now.

Fig.1.2_Cause and Influence_1Q201

Fig.1.3_Cause and Influence_1Q201

As young Americans look to a post-COVID economy, their own well-being and that of others appears to be top of mind. And while they are still deeply engaged in helping others, especially when it comes to racial equity and animal rights, their own changing health and economic situation cannot be ignored.

Causes must recognize how other issues affect them

Causes always have had to pay attention to how their issue can be made relevant to target audiences. Typically, they do this with campaigns featuring compelling images, videos, and stories crafted to help supporters and potential supporters feel what people most impacted by the issue are going through. So what does a cause do when its target audiences and people impacted by the issue are one and the same?

For starters, their campaigns need to encourage those who are impacted by the issue to talk to their peers about their own experiences while also standing up in support of the issue. This goes beyond people impacted or interested in an issue looking to recruit like-minded people to the cause. It means getting individuals with the same lived experience to join forces as a collective and share their hard-earned insights to bring about change.

It also means causes must intimately understand how they relate to the young people they’re trying to reach. The best way to do this is to interact with them and help them understand the interconnectedness of your particular issue with the issues young people are dealing with at the moment.

Finally, causes need to encourage supporters to elevate their voices in a way that directly and personally communicates the relevance of their individual experience. For example, while petitions continue to be popular, causes should start to think about augmenting them with personal stories. Rather than simply asking members of your target audience to sign a petition, package it with a story of someone impacted by the issue that potential signers of the petition can relate to.

The shift in how empathy is being channeled as the pandemic begins to wind down is something we all need to pay attention to. COVID impacted all of us, one way or another, and issues that once may have been seen as only involving certain groups or populations have changed and, in many cases, broadened out. As nonprofit leaders, we need to recognize that yesterday's supporter may also be today’s beneficiary.

Heashot_derrick_feldmannDerrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the founder of the Millennial Impact Project, lead researcher at Cause and Social Influence, and the author of The Corporate Social Mind. For more by Derrick, click here.

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