Millennials: Generation Misunderstood

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


| September-October, 2009


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.

Soprano
10/7/2009 11:38:20 AM

". . . Eric Utne’s original vision for our 25-year-old project: to encourage community, cooperation, and forward thinking across political, economic, and cultural lines." Sounds like Canada.















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