Millennials will save us!

Boomers, Gen Xers and pundits like Thomas Friedman have it wrong: Gen Y's pragmatic idealism can create real change

Topics: Books, Editor's Picks, millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, Thomas Friedman,

Millennials will save us! (Credit: Shutterstock/AP/Eric Risberg/Kathy Willens)

It’s November 2004 in the nation’s election battleground, the swing state of Ohio. It’s raining hard as voters, many fed up with the Bush administration and looking for a chance to express themselves, are coming out to vote. Lines are particularly long in Gambier, Ohio, a small town of about 2,000 people. Gambier’s major industry is Kenyon College, which sprawls through the heart of town. Like many small liberal-arts colleges, Kenyon was a bastion of youth activism in the 1960s and ’70s. But in 2004, although the Kenyon campus is a beehive of intellectual activity, political and social activism are no longer the hallmarks of the college experience.

Many freshmen and sophomores are thrilled to be voting for the first time, especially in such a hotly contested election. One in particular, then 19-year-old freshman Matt Segal, heads to the polling place at 6 a.m. and votes quickly. He stays to volunteer at the polls, but he soon sees long lines forming, forcing people to wait for hours for their turn in the booth. Those who stick it out will, in some cases, end up waiting for 12 hours or more. That Election Day, the last person finally cast their ballot at 4 a.m. “It was injustice,” Matt tells me years later; I can still hear his outrage. “I was frustrated, but I was also energized. I said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this. This isn’t the way democracy was sold to me.’”

And Matt did something. He called Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who represented nearby Cleveland and was closely monitoring voter turnout in the state. That call launched an unusual partnership: Matt, a young, newfound political activist, and Tubbs Jones, a seasoned politician with a grandmotherly vibe. After the 2004 election, Tubbs Jones became a leading proponent of election reform and a champion for young voters. She was so concerned about the disenfranchisement that Matt and other Ohioans (young and old, black and white) had experienced that she objected on the floor of Congress to the necessary certification of the 2004 presidential election results, forcing the House of Representatives to debate election reform for hours. For Matt, the simple act of walking in to cast his ballot on November 2004 would alter the course of his life. A month later, he would be called to testify before Congress on his experiences. In 2007, he founded the Student Association for Voter Empowerment, also known as SAVE. Today the organization is called Our Time, and it advocates for young Americans on all issues from voter empowerment to economic opportunity.

Matt didn’t go to his polling place on that Election Day in 2004 to become a leading advocate for young voters. He just wanted to vote. By most standards, he was a pretty regular guy. Matt had been to rock concerts in support of various causes and considered himself “politically informed,” but in November 200 he was not, by his own definition, any sort of “activist.” And that’s what’s so interesting about Matt’s experience — and many similar Millennial stories. Matt didn’t have a history of activism, but what Matt saw in those 12-hour voting lines was so powerful that he just had to take action. His first reaction was not to organize a march to the Gambier town hall or lead a giant rally on the Kenyon quad. Rather, his first action was a highly pragmatic one: He called his congresswoman.

While it seemed perfectly natural to Matt to work “within the system,” he also knew intuitively that to be powerful inside it, you have to work with people outside of it. Through this approach to creating change, Matt has become one of the most powerful young advocates in Washington. Years later, Matt’s approach can be seen throughout Generation Y. The pattern has played out in countless stories of young people across the country. Ordinary people — concerned by a problem, an issue or an injustice — have been empowered to become extraordinary and effective champions of change. This is the Millennial approach to activism, as well as to business, personal attitudes and sometimes even overall life choices.

This approach comes from a mindset that I call pragmatic idealism. Millennials definitely have high ideals — and a strong commitment to those ideals, values and beliefs. But they also know their ideals must be actionable and realizable. They therefore tend to be comfortable and confident taking small, steady, incremental, practical steps to accomplish their goals — even when their goals are ultimately big, ambitious, idealistic visions.

Pragmatism and idealism are often viewed as lying at opposite ends of the continuum of political, economic, social and cultural change. Throughout much of the 1950s in post–World War II America, the pendulum swung very far in the direction of pragmatism: Society was led by a deep focus on careers, families, automobiles, homeownership and a general mentality of personal success, “getting ahead” and sharing in the abundant and growing economic pie. This was an approach to life leavened by comparatively little idealism about the possibilities for progress in the outside world.

Just a decade later, in the late 1960s, many young people were advocating total revolution and frontal assault on capitalism and every manifestation of “the system” and its values. Extreme action, some believed, was the best way to change society. The pendulum had now swung very far toward idealism, with pragmatic concerns frequently thrown overboard into a sea of angry marchers and demonstrators who believed that only hyperbolic rhetoric and action in the streets could bring about change. The cultural energies today are quite different, and the national agenda has been significantly transformed. Today’s Millennials generally view change in society as a project to work on, not something to demand.

This is not to say there are no longer protests and demonstrations, or that no one in the Millennial generation believes in revolution. But while there are many Millennial activists who are passionate about their causes and about achieving large-scale social change over time, only a small minority of them would identify themselves as radicals or revolutionaries or would advocate putting every issue on the table now and fighting to overturn the entire system. The Occupy Wall Street movement was one instance of a handful of radicalized Millennials, but even that movement had its pragmatic side (organizing daily life in New York’s Zuccotti Park, for example). In any event, even the Occupy protests of late 2011 all but disappeared by the spring of 2012.

In the Arab Spring, Millennials were actively protesting with the idealistic goal of removing the dictators in charge of their countries. However, these Millennials were also pragmatic in that they intentionally limited their goals to the removal of dictators and did not attempt to articulate or gain support for a full program of social change that would inevitably need to follow. Pragmatic idealism was also on display in the blending of online and offline tactics that were used in organizing the Arab uprisings of 2011 and 2012. Pragmatic idealists are at the center of many of today’s youth-led movements, and their thinking and life experiences are very different from those of the radicals who dominated the movements for social change in the 1960s.

While many complex and conflicting trends were at work in the ’80s and ’90s, it is fair to say that the Gen Xers who emerged from those decades had a different mindset than either the Boomers who came before them or the Millennials who would come after. The worldview of the Xers mixed nihilism, anger, cynicism and irony in ways not seen before, as well as an ultra-pragmatism bred by the new avenues toward extreme wealth open to young people who went into careers in business and finance. As Julie Barko Germany, a member of Generation X, says, “I wish I had been born a Millennial. It would have been so much easier to accomplish the goals I believe in if my generation had benefited from both the idealism and the practical thinking of the Millennials.”

There were moments in the ’60s and in other eras when pragmatism and idealism were combined and balanced, but they have not been fused together in the prevailing mindset within a rising generation until now. In our modern world, the most complex questions require a meaningful mix of an idealistic vision with a pragmatic approach. The possibilities for success in solving long-intractable problems will be vastly expanded if Millennials can break down the wall between idealism and pragmatism to allow the ideas and energy from both sides of the equation to flow freely. We know that in order to effect change on issues we care about, we have to master the workings of our society’s existing institutions. As 25-year-old Marci Baranski observes, “Our generation is beginning to internalize the ideals of social justice and environmental conservation. Though we may not be acting out the way past generations have, we now have the option of having a career based on sustainability — whether it is in business, politics, engineering or science … We are not passive on these pressing issues; we are simply learning to work within the system … And that’s why we want to go into careers where we could be contributing to those changes on a lifelong basis.”

Millennials have a high degree of trust in their society’s institutions. A Pew Research Center study found that Millennials are “more supportive of business than their elders. A higher percentage of Millennials than other cohorts agrees that ‘business corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest.’” This feeling is shared by 44 percent of Millennials, compared with 35 percent of Gen Xers and Boomers and 32 percent of the Greatest Generation. We don’t blindly trust these institutions; we understand their limitations and know that greed and corruption are inevitable, and thus we are not shocked by scandals and crises.

The same spirit of pragmatic idealism is responsible for the Millennials’ optimistic attitude about their economic prospects, even in the depths of a lingering recession that has hit our generation hard and diminished our prospects of finding our first jobs. A Pew study found that although Millennials’ “entry into careers and first jobs has been badly set back by the Great Recession … they are more upbeat than their elders about their own economic futures as well as about the overall state of the nation.”

Millennials are part of the quiet progression toward significant, scalable and lasting change, and they are learning that they can do extraordinary things when they mobilize their peers. One example is Nashville native Marvelyn Brown. At 19 years old, she was flattered when her “Prince Charming,” as she calls him, wanted to have sex with her without using a condom. Soon thereafter, the unthinkable happened: Marvelyn was diagnosed with AIDS. She became an outcast. She was shunned by her parents (who told her to tell people she had cancer), shunned by her friends (who thought they could “catch it” from her) and faced such torment and ridicule from her fellow students that she was forced to drop out of school. Confronted with these obstacles, Marvelyn decided that she would devote her life to HIV/AIDS awareness, prevention and education. Today, she travels the country and the world telling her story, educating people about safe sex and asking people to get tested for HIV on the spot. On average, two-thirds of her audiences get tested after hearing her speak. She is doing something each and every day, and that something is both idealistic (educating people and working toward the goal of a world that is free from the scourge of AIDS) and yet still pragmatic (educational, evolutionary, one person and one audience at a time).

* * *

During the 2008 election, I caught up with Kate Lupo. Kate, 24, had wanted to work in the art world in high school, but in college she had become very active in environmental issues. It started with a class she took simply to fill a requirement: “I took this environmental justice class the winter of my sophomore year, and I can honestly say it changed my life. I realized that I had been totally caught up in my romantic notions of the New York City art world and that there was so much more to be done, so many issues that needed to be solved.

Soon after that class she went to Washington to participate in Powershift, a large rally of young environmental activists. She described the experience to me in vivid detail: “I felt, this is the movement I want to be involved in. This encompasses so much. I was there with my other friends, and I felt like we had gotten off our butts and were doing something. We were out there in the cold screaming for something that we cared about.”

But for Kate, rallies are not the chief way to bring about the environmental consciousness and change she seeks. In her last year of college, Kate developed an organization called Murals for America that combines her passion for the arts with environmental justice. The project gives high school students the opportunity to paint environmentally themed murals in their school hallways. Students create art and raise fellow students’ awareness of environmental issues at the same time. “Organizing the mural project, I felt the incredible energy and potential of youth and schoolkids working on these projects,” Kate said. We should observe that she isn’t storming Congress for action on cap and trade; nor is she abandoning environmental activism for expediency’s sake. Instead, she has found a way to bring her passions, resources and capabilities together to play a small role as a change agent on a huge issue. Kate demonstrates one of the approaches that pragmatic idealism encourages: taking small but significant — and sustainable — actions. Criticisms abound that “big small actions” like Kate’s are nothing more than laziness or “activism lite.” Naysayers deem actions like wearing a cause-oriented bracelet or simply clicking to join a socially minded Facebook group as “slacktivism.” These critics might also question the seriousness of someone like Kate’s involvement, feeling that what she is doing isn’t “enough.”

“They can’t email it in,” wrote New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in a now-seminal column exploring what he believes is wrong with the activism of Millennials — or, in Friedman’s chosen term for us, “Generation Q” (with “Q” standing for Quiet). Although Friedman admits he’s impressed with the strength of Millennial “optimism and idealism,” he is “baffled” by our pragmatism. He wants us to be radicals, as many in his generation were at our age. He wants us to express moral outrage in ways that might have made sense in the 1960s but which are less appropriate or effective today. He wants us to “demand” answers from every candidate arriving on a college campus about what he believes are the pivotal youth issues of our times — mitigating the effects of global climate change, reforming social security and dealing with the U.S. budget deficit.

Friedman opined, “America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q. That’s what 20-somethings are for — to light a fire under the country … an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it.” He went on to state the obvious about the past, with rhetorical flourish: “Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades.” He seems to believe Millennials think social media is synonymous with political action, and therefore he thinks we don’t see the limitations of “virtual politics.” The opposite is true. Most Millennials who are politically active understand the need to create links between online and offline political action. We also understand that while social media campaigns are valuable new tools, they are not the be-all and end-all of activism.

Friedman made several incorrect assessments. First, he has an old-world view of “what 20-somethings are for.” He thinks young people are supposed to be the shock troops who can afford to stage attention-getting protests to catalyze the rest of the country into acting on important issues. But what if today’s Millennials want deeper success for their causes? While rallies have occasionally proven to be useful tools for Millennials on issues like Darfur and climate change, and while they can have a powerful effect on participants, as Kate’s experience at Powershift demonstrates, most Millennials are engaged in more pragmatic efforts to effect change that are more in tune with our times. Furthermore, Friedman’s dismissal of “virtual” politics is outmoded. Although technology-based activism may still be more prevalent among Millennials than those in other generations, the use of social media has been growing for a decade. No political, economic or organizational campaign led by people of any generation would today be without an important social media component.

Any of us who have organized successfully recognize that online and offline actions need to be connected and integrated. What’s more, just 13 months after Friedman’s Generation Q piece was published, young people played a decisive role in the outcome of the 2008 election, contributing to Barack Obama’s victory. And in the 2012 fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), which would have placed severe restrictions on online sharing and downloading, an online community — led by Millennials — succeeded in stopping the legislation in its tracks.

* * *

One of the main messages that came out of the Live Earth concerts organized by Al Gore in 2007 was the role that young people could play in addressing global climate change by taking actions as minimal as turning off lights or turning thermostats down. Some experts laughed off the value of asking young people to turn off their lights. But many Millennials did, in fact, become more conscious about conserving energy. Is turning off the lights an important political or moral action? Maybe not. But we live in a world — and face problems like global climate change — where the impact of millions of people taking small, even trivial actions can actually add up to something quite large.

It’s certainly fair to distinguish between “helping out” and “being an activist.” But in aggregate, actions can be valuable even if they are “lite” and easy. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the State Department organized a campaign encouraging donations of $10 to the relief effort via text message. This campaign illustrated the power of “easy” instant actions to make a material difference in people’s lives. The bottom line: Over $100 million was raised for Haiti relief through texting and similar cell phone campaigns. In the first few days after the quake, the American Red Cross was absolutely stunned by the power of thousands upon thousands of people contributing to Haiti relief efforts in this way. The $8 million total raised less than three days after the earthquake ravaged Haiti was “unheard of,” a Red Cross spokeswoman said. “We’ve never raised this much money with a mobile campaign, especially $10 at a time.” She attributed the response to the dire emergency, the closeness of Haiti to the United States and the simplicity of donating via text. “It’s something that an average person can do — and the $10 amount has been key. It’s doable,” she said.

Substantial political, intellectual and romanticized baggage from other eras attaches itself to the concept of activism, and much of this baggage is rooted in the impressions of youth activism from the 1960s and early ’70s. Past images of young people “in the streets” have become the standard against which today’s youth action is judged. So it’s tempting to assume that if we don’t rise to that level of precedent-setting outrage, volume and visibility, we aren’t doing much. But as pragmatic idealists, Millennials realize activism can take many forms. Political scientist Natalie Davis noted that Millennials, in comparison to Gen Xers, are

neither cynical nor alienated, and you seem to like your parents. You’re not like the Boomers, who are ideologues and tend to listen only to those who share their ideology. You are seen as being inclusive when it comes to race, ethnicity and sexual orientation … You want to build coalitions … You are networked, and you tweet. And most importantly for our time, you are problem-solvers.

But some, like conservative writer and Emory College professor Mark Bauerlein, would have us believe that not only are Millennials not activists, but we aren’t even remotely engaged in the world. In his book ”The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone under 30),” Bauerlein proclaims,

It isn’t enough to say these young people are uninterested in world realities. They are actively cut off from them. Or a better way to put it is to say that they are encased in more immediate realities that shut out conditions — beyond friends, work, clothes, cars, pop music, sitcoms, Facebook. Each day the information they receive and the interaction they have must be so local or so superficial that the facts of government, foreign and domestic affairs … never slip through.

I won’t pretend that there aren’t members of my generation who fit this description. But it’s hard to claim that disengagement with politics is a major epidemic among American youth when the 2008 election saw 51.1 percent of eligible Millennials vote, one of the largest young voter turnouts in history. And as for Bauerlein’s complaints that we’re idling away on Facebook, how would he explain the Facebook group “1 Million Strong for Barack,” which was started by a passionate Millennial and has managed to attract nearly 500 thousand members, or the fact that more than 26 million people “like” Barack Obama on Facebook? While we know not all of these people are deeply engaged with politics, it would be hard to say they are, as Bauerlein puts it, “actively cut off ” from politics.

We Millennials do not think total change is practical, possible or even desirable. We are much more evolutionary than revolutionary. In this spirit, we actually have more in common with the activism of the early ’60s, which showed us that pragmatic idealism can work.

The ’60s was full of significant accomplishments, many made possible by the work of youth activists. Whether or not they agreed with the war in Vietnam at the beginning, by its later stages most Americans had turned against it. Youth activists played a key role in catalyzing that change, ultimately bringing an end to one of the deadliest military campaigns in American history. Young people were also major forces pushing for comprehensive civil rights legislation, which was passed, leading to the greatest progress on equality, justice and empowerment for African Americans and other minorities in a century. These and other accomplishments of the ’60s, propelled initially by youth, put in motion reforms and waves of change that have continued for the past five decades. There is little doubt that without the movement of the ’60s, young people would not have had the opportunity to support Barack Obama’s candidacy in 2008. Surely Millennials are standing on the shoulders of a generation of giants who kicked off significant cultural and political shifts, but ours is a different path.

The world is fundamentally different today. The 21st century agenda, with pressing issues ranging from health care reform to the role of government in restructuring the U.S. economy, responding to global climate change and learning how to live in a world where terrorists and rogue states are a fact of life, is more complex and nuanced. The Millennial mindset is particularly appropriate and sustainable when it comes to addressing these kinds of intricate, generation-long challenges where the solutions are not always obvious, where extensive experimentation and creative policy thinking are needed to develop models that can actually work, and where each citizen has a role to play and a contribution to make.

Excerpted from “Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping Our World,” by David D. Burstein (Beacon Press, 2013). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

David D. Burstein is the founder and executive director of the youth voter engagement organization Generation18.

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