Millennials: Generation Misunderstood

The millennials will change the face of American politics, but no one—especially progressives—should take them for granted

Dave Schimke Portriat

image by Chris Lyons / lindgrensmith.com

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In the midst of World War I, French Prime Minister Aristide Briand quipped, “The man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at 40 he has no head.” The sentiment, which Winston Churchill anglicized and made famous, has since been repurposed, retreaded, and quoted as gospel by playwrights, philosophers, political columnists, and my beloved uncle Bob, who once referred to me as “Fidel” after a friendly family debate.

Assuming clichés become clichés for a reason, I had imagined until just a few months ago that early one morning in the not-so-distant future, I’d bolt awake, smash the HD clock radio still on sale at NPR.org, Google the American Conservative’s job board, and seek out a meeting of Taxpayers Anonymous. After all, I’m a fortysomething guy from Wisconsin who still attends Green Bay Packer games in 30-below weather. How the hell could I fend off the conservative spirits that lurk in the shadow of death?

Well, as it turns out, Monsieur Briand hadn’t done his homework. According to Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University, 2008), the aging process is more or less apolitical. “While it is true that on certain specific questions people’s opinions may change as they gain whatever wisdom comes from experience,” the coauthors write, “it is also true that most people rarely change the fundamental patterns of perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes they learn when they are growing up.”

I picked up Millennial Makeover in mid-July, after returning from the 2009 Campus Progress National Conference in Washington, D.C., where President Bill Clinton and The Daily Show’s John Oliver were tasked with firing up 1,000 budding progressives who had gathered to discuss pivotal issues ranging from health care to human rights. The day before the conference, Campus Camp Wellstone hosted a grassroots training session; the day after was set aside for the Nation’s Youth Journalism Conference , where I’d been invited to hang out with college-age alternative journalists.

I wish I could have spent more time talking shop with these fledgling storytellers. They had an infectious energy, shot through with self-confidence and optimism. I left the event both inspired by and curious about the millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2001, whom Emory University English professor and author Mark Bauerlein recently disparaged in his widely reviewed book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (Tarcher, 2008).

Bauerlein argues that by de-emphasizing reading and overemphasizing digital technology, America has produced millions of citizens ignorant of history and unable to analyze the information that’s washing over them at warp speed. Ultimately, though, Bauerlein is so seduced by the provocative nature of his argument, he neglects to draw a three-dimensional portrait of his subjects.

Rick Stevens, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in new media, helped me fill in the holes. He agrees that millennials could stand a few more lessons in media literacy. Still, their innate “BS meters” fascinate him.

“Millennials are immediately suspicious of people who claim to have all the answers,” Stevens says. “They don’t want platitudes. When they see problems, they want to work on solutions. They have a more try-and-see mentality. They’re more collective.”

In February, Russ Linden, an educator who specializes in organizational methodology in the public sector, wrote on Governing ’s website that millennials have a great facility for technology and an eagerness for change, believe information should be shared, lack patience with bureaucracy, and harbor a passion for service.

“It’s possible that we’re about to witness another great generation,” he says.

 

Conservatives spent the past 20 years perfecting the art of spin, creating an institutionalized echo chamber that some on the left, particularly liberal activists who came of age during the Reagan revolution, are still trying in vain and at their own peril to emulate. After losing to Bush in 2004, but learning a great deal from Howard Dean’s ability to exploit the Web in early primaries, high-level Democrats like former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, founder of the Center for American Progress —which runs Campus Progress—encouraged their organizations to hit the computer books. The goal: Harness the untapped power of social media and woo the youth vote.

By any measure, the effort has been a success. Barack Obama won a “stunning 66 percent of voters 18-29” in the 2008 election, Ronald Brownstein reported on the Atlantic ’s website in May. At the time of Brownstein’s post, President Obama was scoring “positive approval ratings from a dizzying 75 percent of voters under 30.”

If Republicans cannot figure out a way to reverse this trend, and quickly, party leaders believe it could prove to be a jackpot for Democrats that pays out for decades. Winograd and Hais calculate that by 2012, 61 percent of the millennials will be eligible to vote, and they’ll compose 24 percent of the electorate. In 2016, they could constitute 30 percent of all eligible voters, in 2020 as much as 36 percent. The data is so promising that in May, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, writing for the American Prospect , used it to bolster their conclusion that “new research on ideology refutes the conservative myth that America is a ‘center-right’ nation.”

At the end of their piece, Halpin and Teixeira pull the knockout punch, conceding that “conservatives are not out of the ideological hunt altogether” and acknowledging that voters “are often fickle and prone to significant shifts in opinion.” It’s a wisely placed asterisk, but fickleness is not part of the equation. It’s just not clear to whom the millennials will ultimately pledge allegiance.

“The political party that will benefit from the coming realignment is not preordained,” Winograd and Hais point out in Millennial Makeover. “The campaigns, candidates, and events of the rest of this decade will determine which party gains the lifelong allegiance of this new generation and, with it, a dominant advantage in the next civic era of American politics.”

In other words, even in the wake of Obama’s ascension, it’s way too early for progressives to conclude, as some in the opinion-driven blogosphere already have, that the kids are alright. As Brownstein observes, “it is the lasting loyalty of this mammoth young generation . . . that is the real prize at play.”

It’s true, for now, that the Republican Party’s loudest members are still running their mouths like it was 1999. But tech-savvy operatives, leveraging the right’s considerable financial resources and organizational skills, are playing catch-up behind the scenes (see “ All the Right Moves ” on p. 8). Meanwhile, Democrats have gone a long way in the past eight months to prove Ralph Nader’s thesis that both parties are equally incompetent, corruptible, and out of touch.

What the politicos haven’t seemed to grasp yet is that one of the personality traits that distinguish millennials from previous generations is that they gravitate to specific personalities, not institutions or a fixed set of ideals. They will commit, but they have no patience for disingenuousness, a function of the BS meter Rick Stevens refers to. Which is why, in Stevens’ opinion, Obama’s ability to maintain his pragmatic political posture may be more significant than any single piece of legislation or bit of rhetoric either party chooses to highlight in 2010.

“Obama appeals to [the millennials] because he’s speaking to them in their practical language,” Stevens says. “It’s a different politic. It’s not about left versus right and whoever wins jams stuff down the other’s throat. His idea is that everyone can be part of the solution. That’s why the younger generation, conservative and liberal, overwhelmingly went for him.

“They are the ultimate generation at being misunderstood. When someone is demonized, they’re looking for the other side of the story.”

We hope to help our readers do the same. In this issue’s cover package, “ Post-Pundit America: The End of Attack Politics ” (p. 38), writers from vastly different ideological universes argue that we all have a unique opportunity to transcend partisanship in the name of progress. And it seems that millennials, whom Russ Linden believes are actually energized by turbulence, are ready to lead the way.

I can’t think of a more appropriate way to celebrate founder Eric Utne’s original vision for our 25-year-old project: to encourage community, cooperation, and forward thinking across political, economic, and cultural lines.

Who knows, it might turn out we’ve been on to something all along.