How to Change the World Without Going Broke

A new book urges young people to make smart choices about their desire to make a difference.

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In her new book Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, Courtney E. Martin argues that twenty-somethings have been unfairly labeled as entitled, self-absorbed, and apathetic. She says we’re just overwhelmed with all of our choices, including how to make a difference in the world. We have access to so much online, in school, and in our careers, that it’s not always easy to sort through everything. The good news, she writes, is that there are many ways to change the world, and they don’t require you to ruin your financial life in the process. I recently spoke with Martin about young activists and their options. Excerpts:

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What’s different about today’s generation of activists compared to older generations?

We're operating with completely different liberations and constraints. On the one hand, we are facing the most globalized, bureaucratic, complex world in which to make change—so many of the old methods of social change are no longer effective. On the other, we're blessed with some amazing new tools—the Internet being the most obvious.

For people who don’t have much extra money to travel or donate, how can they most effectively make a difference?

I think reflecting on where your biggest gifts meets the world's deepest needs is the most important first step. Are you a talented baker? The maybe you can get involved in an organization feeds folks and figure out a way to contribute. Are you great at getting to know new, diverse people? Then maybe you can support older neighbors in your community who need people to socialize with on a daily basis. There are massive systemic issues that we have to face, but sometimes just making the world a kinder place for someone is tantamount to making a real difference.

Consumer spending can have a big impact on company behavior; do you have any advice for people who want to be smarter about the impact of their spending dollars?

Put your dollar where you heart is. Consumers have such power, both in our pocketbooks and in our more specific advocacy efforts, like contacting companies and expressing support or disgust with their labor practices or environmental policies. Think of the three corporations that are getting the most of your monthly paycheck. Do they deserve it? Do you have any flexibility in switching? Can you express appreciation or disdain for their policies?

[For more money-saving tips, visit the U.S. News Alpha Consumer blog.]

For people who want to pursue a career as an activist, how is that possible?Are there ways to make a living while also making a difference? Or do you have to accept a future of low-earnings and ‘do it anyway’?

One thing that all of the activists I interviewed made clear is that martyrs don't make very effective movers and shakers. If you're doing low-paying work that you hate, you're probably not very good at it. Instead, go after work that really fulfills you and the money will follow. Emily Abt left social work after realizing that she hated it, and instead, made a film about the welfare system. She didn't make much money doing either job, but she loved the latter so it didn't bother her, plus she was able to spread the word about a system that affects so many people's lives.

You talk with your parents about how when they were activists in the 60s, they really believed they were changing the world. Why is it harder for young people to believe that today?

I think that on a purely rational level, it is harder to make large, systemic change today. Things are more entrenched, ownership is more consolidated, wealth is in the hands of so few, compared to the masses. But I don't think we have to let the stagnancy all around us determine our actions. We have to live in the now, for sure, but we can strive towards a transformed future.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.