A Millennial Social Policy Agenda for the Millennium

Last week I had a post about the Millennials, their tremendous potential for good in this country, and how advocates for social justice can build on their promise. I’ve been doing some more research, both about the characteristics and conditions of this generation, and about their public opinion preferences, and I’ve been thinking about what a social policy agenda for this “Millennial Era” (as it’s called in Millenial Makeover) would look like.

What excites me the most? How much potential for overlap there is with My Top 10 Things we Should be Thinking about in 2010 list. Maybe there’s hope for me being an ‘honorary Millennial’ after all!

But the greatest lesson for this whole exercise, I think, is how we can learn to talk and think like Millennials regardless of our particular policy priorities, in order to both gain new perspectives on our issues and also to increase the likelihood that they’ll gain support from this large and increasingly influential cohort. Below are some of the values and concerns that the authors identified in Millennial Makeover, with my take on how to frame social work policy priorities to align with them:

  • Concern about debt and fiscal sustainability: Millennials will deal with record personal and national debt as they age, and they’re right to be concerned with how it may weigh down their pursuit of their goals, and our collective pursuit of national well-being. Social work advocates can talk about tax reform as a step towards a stronger fiscal foundation, and should also have ideas for how stronger education investments (see below), prevention programs, immigration reform, and other social work priorities will also reduce costs and, ultimately, shrink the federal deficit. This doesn’t mean that we back away from priorities that have significant costs, but it should add another tool with which we can make our case. It also means that we need to address the rising economic insecurity even among highly-skilled workers, for whom the economic recession and increasingly ‘temporary’ attachments to employers have resulted in tenuous and very leveraged lives.

  • Commitment to equitable health care policies: Millennials are more likely than any other cohort to be without health insurance coverage, and their employment histories (and, likely, futures) make an exclusively employment-based health care system untenable. Advocates for social justice need to organize and mobilize this population in pursuit of continual health care reform, connecting it not just to their own vulnerability but also to their concerns about equity, security, and fiscal solvency. Again, similar arguments can be used to shift risk from individuals to the federal government and other collective entities, not just in the area of health care, but more broadly across people’s lives.

  • Belief in the importance of education: There are two key points here: first, that Millennials will be a very highly educated generation, and one that knows first-hand the value of an education and, second, that some of the values and tools of this generation are well-suited to reforming our educational institutions in ways that have significant promise to improve outcomes for all kids–transparency, relationship, accountability, networking, anti-orthodoxy.

  • Commitment to public service: If our nonprofit organizations aren’t structuring volunteer opportunities specifically to appeal to young adult volunteers, we are totally missing the boat here. Over 80% of Millennials volunteer, so get busy and figure out how to connect them to your work. In public policy, we can build on this belief in shared fate, responsibility to others, and the value of altruism to promote policies that, while not directly related to Millennials’ individual well-being, appeal to their sense of civic-mindedness; this is where support for older adults and those with disabilities could fall.

  • Environmental protection: Millennials care about my kids’ future, too, even though they’re too young to belong to the same generation, and, in addition to being the generation that will (hopefully) stop climate change and reduce our footprint, the Millennials’ focus on future generations is a good argument for supporting investments like universal preschool, stronger supports for working families, commitment to juvenile justice reform, and other policies for a better tomorrow.

    The Millennial Makeover ends like this (I couldn’t fall asleep for hours later!):
    “The tectonic plates undergirding America’s political landscape are beginning to shift. The resulting cataclysm will wash away the current politics of polarization and ideological deadlock, putting in place a new landscape of collective purpose and national consensus that involved individuals and communities in solving the nation’s problems” (p. 267).

    I don’t know about you, but this is one wave I really want to ride. I apologize in advance to my kids’ babysitters for the dozens of questions I will ask you about your political beliefs when you’re just trying to get out the door, to my neighbors’ kids for asking them which issue frame most appeals to them, and to the random young people on campus I stop to ask you how you think the Obama Administration is handling xyz issue. It’s just that, well, I think you’re kind of a big deal. And so should we all.

    I’d love to see examples of how these issues and perspectives of Millennials are (or are not) reflected in this 2010 election season. A special treat awaits those who comment with links to political advertisements or other analysis of how candidates, parties, and/or nonpartisan groups are framing their priorities along these lines, and/or actively reaching out to Millennials in pursuit of their common policy agendas!

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