“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night.”
― Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Once upon a time not so long ago, the best minds of the younger generation left college to join nonprofit organizations working to improve communities, nations and the world. Today, idealistic young people are heading toward tech.
To launch a “Startup” today means starting a tech company. Into the 1980’s, when you heard someone was starting a new venture it was typically a nonprofit; few young people in those days launched money-making businesses.
Tech Becomes Hip
Google bus protests have not changed young people’s view that jobs with Google, Facebook, Twitter and the like are not only lucrative, but hip. Reviews of restaurants or bars catering to this clientele refer to them as “hipsters,” a major shift from the days when computer workers were “nerds.”
We’ve reached a point where a young person working on a computer in a café automatically becomes a “hipster.” The term is either fully divorced from its counter-culture roots or tech has become “counter-culture” based on its informal apparel and work culture.
Whereas nonprofits were once identified as vehicles for “improving the world,” this ethos is now associated with tech. People identify expanding technology with economic empowerment and job opportunities. That tech has increased worldwide inequality simply confirms the need to bridge the “digital divide” by broadening tech’s reach.
While tech is hip and 21st century, nonprofits are portrayed as offering 1960’s policy solutions to 21st century problems.
Burning Man embodies tech’s new hipness. So does tech’s entrepreneurial culture, which increasingly defines “hip” and “cutting edge.” Those launching tech start-ups are seen as the Thomas Edison’s and Ben Franklin’s of our age, even when their product has no connection to any social or public good.
The media is far more interested in promoting “idealistic” young tech entrepreneurs trying to change the world than there are about nonprofit workers on the ground in distressed communities. Social services are seen as a holding pattern, while tech is the hope for the future.
While tech is hip and 21st century, nonprofits are portrayed as offering 1960’s policy solutions to 21st century problems. In the public mind, nonprofits are promoting public housing in an era of micro units; our solutions may be better, but are seen as outdated and “old-school.”
While some may think today’s youth lack the idealism of the past, some committed young people are choosing tech over working for a nonprofit because times have changed.
This point recently hit home for me at an exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in London on Chris Marker’s footage of the 1968 student uprising in Paris. Looking back on the struggle, Marker observed that while his generation sought to change the world, today’s financially pressed young people are understandably focused on getting a good job. He recognized that each set of young people were responding to the economic conditions of their times.
I have worked for a nonprofit my entire adult life and was fortunate to come of age at the tail-end of that brief moment in United States history when government and foundations funded nonprofits believing they could really make a difference. They saw nonprofit services and advocacy as promoting economic empowerment, job opportunities, and reducing inequality.
But the Reagan Administration defunded nonprofits precisely because they were too successful. And the nonprofit sector has never recovered.
With government dropping the ball, it’s no wonder that some of today’s idealistic young people are channeled toward the tech sector; it is seen as better positioned financially to really make a difference.
There are still supremely talented young people joining nonprofits. But we have come a long way from the days when a President of the United States inspired a new generation to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Singer Dan Bern wrote in his 1993 song Wasteland that “the best of my generation were playing pinball.” Rightly or not, future versions of Ginsberg’s classic Howl will situate these frustrated hipsters in tech.