I wish I was a Millennial: the generation that could turn it around

So, now that you’ve watched fireworks explode, enjoyed time with family and friends, and celebrated the democratic traditions that make this country great, it’s time to turn our attention to the reality that it is time, again this year, to make it great again: It’s an election year!

This week and next, Classroom to Capitol will focus on electoral trends, issues, and strategies that, together, can set the foundation for successful enactment and implementation of the progressive policies about which social workers so deeply care. We know that it does matter who is elected, that our clients’ voices will be heard differently by different elected officials, and that participation in electoral processes, in itself, holds potential to change clients’ lives. Primaries are less than a month away in many states, and it will be November before we know it. Ya es hora!

Image credit, futuremajority.com

When I read Millennial Makeover, I couldn’t stop thinking about my cousin Caleb. He’s a junior in high school and chair of “Coalition”, which is an organization started by some peers a couple of years ago to…combat child slavery and human trafficking around the world. Seriously. They mainly hold fundraisers: selling concessions at football games, organizing concerts, hosting a 5K…and now they’re getting into advocacy, too. They use social media prolifically (I know, because I’m friends with him on Facebook!) And they make sure that all of their members register to vote when they’re 18. I mean, I was pretty hard-core social justice as a teenager, and I wasn’t involved in anything like this. It’s awesome. And, according to generational experts, it’s a movement.

Millennial Makeover has to be the most optimistic book I’ve read in a long time. It’s like being with Caleb and his friends for an afternoon–they use some acronyms that I don’t immediately understand, but their enthusiasm for justice and fervent belief that they can help to achieve it is infectious. Here, the authors assert that the Millennials are a ‘civic’ generation, characterized by an orientation to societal challenges, problem solving, and institution building. They point to the 2008 Presidential election as a highpoint in this generational cycle (actually begun a few years earlier)–rising voter participation, unprecedented involvement by young voters, and positivism about the role of government in improving people’s lives. And they claim that, historically, most generational shifts like this last about 40 years.

Not yet convinced that’s there’s reason to be excited? The authors point to the New Deal and the presidency of FDR as the last civic realignment, and we know what that period did for social workers and the causes we care about.

I won’t try to restate all of the considerable (and really fascinating) evidence the authors include to draw comparisons between the GI Generation (the last civic generation) and the Millennials (relative diversity, adoption of new technologies, group orientation). Perhaps the most important parallel, for electoral purposes, is the most obvious one: both generations are larger than the ones immediately preceding them. That means that, quite soon, the Millennials will be big enough to make their preferences dominant, which is why it’s important for social work advocates and organizers to understand what those preferences are and how to mobilize them. We know that demographics are not destiny, though, and that social movements are built and sustained, not magically derivative of vital statistic patterns.

So, what we need to “get” about Millennials to build electoral and broad-based movements that will make their power felt:

  • The old divisions don’t work–we need new coalitions.
    Identity politics will have to evolve to resonate with Millennials, whose social lives don’t break down along the same lines. While, importantly, Millennials’ neighborhoods and schools are highly segregated, their own attitudes about race, sexual orientation, and gender roles are much more egalitarian than current generations in power, which opens up considerable opportunity for progressive policy, but only if we can find new ‘hooks’ to bring people into politics (around ideas, not identity).

  • They’re not just shiny new gadgets–they’re whole new ways of connecting.
    We know that nonprofits, campaigns, and social movements will fail to authentically engage Millennials (and, quite possibly, anyone) if we view social media and other emerging technologies as just new platforms on which to broadcast our same messages. Millennials just don’t relate to technology that way; Caleb hardly ever buys CDs and rarely even subscribes to e-newsletters, but he shares weblinks and photos and other content through social media all the time, and creates his own content, too, around the justice issues he’s passionate about.

  • They’re not kids, and their ways of doing things are just as valid.
    There has been some good debate in the nonprofit world about how organizations (including the Generation X and Baby Boomers who currently control them) need to adjust some of their practices and behaviors to be more open to Millennial participation and influence. Candidates and campaigns will have to learn this, too. Some might dismiss this as pandering, but I think it’s essential that we ask ourselves two questions: first, aren’t there some significant ways in which the “Millennial way” of doing things is actually superior to current practice (um, transparent, relational?) and, second, what do we possibly have to gain from alienating a large group of enthusiastic advocates/voters for many of our causes? Exactly. For me, the biggest challenge of this will be getting decentralization rightyou know how I feel about devolution for its own sake, but Millennials will want to see nimble and responsive organizations (and government), and they’ll have good evidence on their side from all of their experiments with collaborative decision-making.

  • This is not a phase; it’s a shift.
    There’s considerable data that the political orientations of a generation are much less pliable than some would think; in other words, today’s 20-year-olds are likely to have many of the same core values when they’re 40. And 70. For many Millennials, for example, their belief in the importance of a strong government was cemented by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the current economic recession, both of which occurred during their formative years. Our challenge, then, is to connect our policy issues to these core values in a way that will resonate–as usual, framing is key.

    So, Millennials, I know you’ll have something to say about all of this! How do you view your world? And these 2010 elections? How are the organizations where you’re working, volunteering (in record numbers!), and advocating including you and your peers (or not)? How can we ‘get it right’, to turn it around?

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