“Stop complaining and buck up.” That is the journalistic wisdom we millennials risk encountering when we go online these days. These unsolicited advice columns claim that our sense of failure comes from our own personal failures to meet life’s challenges head on. Growing up in a culture where everyone got a trophy, where our self-esteem was always in need of a boost, and where Mom and Dad could always be counted on to save the day has made us soft. Unlike generations before us, we peevish and entitled millennials collectively are not stepping up to the plate.
Of course, this narrative misses another distinction between ourselves and the generations that came before, particularly the Boomers and members of Gen-X who are our biggest critics. The average salary for young college graduates has dropped 15 percent, or about $10,000, since 2000. In 1990 youth unemployment was 11 percent; now it is 16 percent. In 1992 students borrowed a combined total of $26.4 billion to go to college; in 2012 college students collectively needed $110.3 billion. We borrowed so little back in the early ’90s because average tuition was around $16,000; now it is over $30,000. Many millennials have had to delay key life moments, like having a baby or buying a house, because of financial uncertainty. And there is serious doubt today whether Medicare and Social Security will be there for us after we retire.
It is often forgotten that the millennial generation’s collective consciousness was awakened with 9/11. This was then followed by the Iraq War and the Great Recession. It is difficult for members of other generations to grasp, much less empathize with, the feelings and world view that develop when you live through the rough equivalents of Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and the Great Depression all before you graduate college. However, for those of us who did experience this formative pounding, the cumulative effect has been overwhelming.
This experience of back-to-back national traumas has largely left millennials reacting in three ways. The first response stems out of our common desire to be high achievers. Many of us have decided to double down on the life strategy we grew up with pre-college: If you want to avoid failure, improve your résumé. Get better grades, do more interesting extra-curriculars and expand your networking. This has left post-college millennials at a loss about what to do with themselves, to rush into law school and other grad programs, seek out prestigious but unpaid internships and tout what accomplishments they do have in an ever-widening array of online and real-world forums. Success in life has come to be seen as a game of chance, so these millennials are trying everything they can to stack the odds in their favor.
The second and probably most common reaction is just to hunker down. Many millennials who graduated college but were unable to find adequate work retreated into their technology and their parents’ houses. Their thought process can largely be summed up as “It is not my fault that the economy is terrible, and it is not my fault that I can’t find decent work. I went to college like all the adults said I should, and instead of finding myself on the way to a middle-class standard of living, all I have is a mountain of debt. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to watching cats on YouTube.” Disengagement and a return to semi-adolescence is comfortable, and to many seems like the only available option.
The third reaction has been political activism. But this political activism has had a particularly millennial flavor. Movements like Occupy Wall Street have been distinct for their lack of leaders, absence of clear policy demands and hostility to elected politicians of all stripes. Russell Brand recently captured this sentiment when he made waves encouraging people not to vote. While this generation clearly does not find politics to be dull or too nerdy to talk about – the popularity of websites like BuzzFeed and programs like "The Daily Show" testify to this – it is hesitant to jump fully into the traditional political arena.
Politics is messy, and our generation has a tendency to avoid messy things. We prefer things to be as clean and simple as an Apple product. In some respects this is an admirable trait, and our desire for uncontroversial simplicity in our politics is derived from one of the better characteristics of our age group.
Most generational writing tends to take white kids’ experience in the suburbs and extrapolate it to an entire generation. This has never been a particularly accurate way to analyze a generation, and that is even more the case for a generation as diverse as ours. This diversity in and of itself, however, has had a huge impact on the psychology of millennials. Hearing about and witnessing the aftereffects of the (necessary and admirable) political fights that took place when the Boomers were young has had a real impact on how millennials have decided to conduct their political lives. We grew up observing how those fights in the ’60s and ’70s divided the Boomer generation between whites and blacks, veterans and protestors, the orthodox and the secular. Seeing this, our generation took a collective look at those fissures and said, “No thanks.” While many of us would have gladly taken to the streets were we alive back then, in post-2000 America, there didn’t seem to be any fights worth losing your cool over. This was especially true because in our more diverse generation the divides would be more numerous and deeper, and we feared what that might mean. The millennial personality, perhaps due to the constant (and kind of silly) prognostications of adults when we were children that we would be America’s first post-racial and most tolerant generation, developed a tendency to not do anything anybody could consider offensive.
Obviously, our broad generational taboos against racism, sexism and homophobia have been for the better. But this desire not to offend has extended to other areas of life. When it is combined with warnings like, “What you say on Facebook will be read by the college admissions board,” the cultural pressure to be generic becomes a matter of financial survival. Sure, you need to be exciting, and yes, you are special, but you shouldn’t be so in a way that anybody could have a problem with.
Because there is pressure to not be seen as a bomb thrower, on political matters we seek a generational consensus before we act. This could largely explain why many of the issues that millennials care most about, like gay marriage and the environment, are not especially controversial within the millennial cohort. This may seem obvious, but it has not always been the case that the issues that a generation cares most about are also the ones they agree on. It is often forgotten, but Vietnam was politically divisive among the youth of America during the war. millennials, in contrast, have tended to shun topics and individuals that seem likely to stir up controversy. Barack Obama himself benefitted from this phenomenon. His main appeal to millennials was not that he advocated any particular policy changes, but rather that he represented both the diversity that defines our generation and an aspiration toward a cultural shift in American politics to a consensus-based approach with which millennials were more comfortable.
Even Occupy Wall Street, on its face a radical call for social justice, fell victim to this millennial tendency not to offend or leave anyone out. Instead of electing leaders or drafting clearly defined objectives, the movement sought to make every decision by consensus: “Wiggle your fingers to vote yes!” By the end, the movement devolved into what seemed to just be a call to allow tents to be pitched in public spaces, because no one could agree about what specifically they stood for.
Traditional electoral politics offends millennial sensibilities. The inherent conflict in the process drives us away. We find distasteful not just the conflict between liberals and conservatives, but the conflict involved in making decisions within campaigns and political parties as well. We know that success in electoral politics demands decisiveness and leadership, but also that the people who don’t get their way when a decision is finally made usually leave feeling upset. millennials would like to avoid that awkwardness if possible.
Both Occupy Wall Street and Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign were attractive because they appeared to be untainted by the battles that have historically dominated and defined American politics – the types of battles that divided our parents’ generation, the types of divisions we so desperately want to avoid. In addition, the respective missions of both Occupy and Obama were so broad and bland that no one partaking could feel excluded. In their own way, both causes represented all things to all millennials. Together we justify the paramount importance we give to cohesion by telling ourselves that if we just stick together and wait, all of the old, bickering folks will die, and then we will inherit the world and govern it effectively and amicably.
This is where we are wrong: believing that we can wait.
Waiting is not an option. Not just because people in our generation are suffering right now, but because democratic governments work only for those who bother to get involved. If we continue to sit on the sidelines and wait for the day when we will be in charge, we will be disappointed both now and in the future. Now, because those in power will continue to feel free to ignore us. And in the future, because even when most of us are middle-aged and theoretically control the system, if we are surrounded by politically active youngsters and seniors, the elected officials of our own generation will pay more heed to those threatening them with electoral defeat than to the needs of their fellow millennials.
Ultimately, if we as millennials want our lives to be better, we must develop sharper elbows and stiffer spines, and accept that some of us will not agree with where the majority of us are headed politically. Our collective failure to accept this is the reason we feel so frustrated and at a loss. Our lack of success generationally is not caused by a sense of entitlement or a string of bad luck, it is that we are timid.
Some might defend the feel-good political activism that has defined millennials to date by arguing with my claims about Occupy Wall Street, and pointing out that Occupy was clearly not squeamish about offending the “one percent.” Others might say that the fact that Occupy raised the issue of income inequality in the public psyche was a victory in its own right. Both of those statements are true, but they are also unimportant to the millennial looking for a job right now. What really matters is whether things are actually being done to reduce income inequality and increase opportunity, and those things only happen through active and unflinching participation in electoral politics – the type of participation that both Occupy and millennials in general have largely shunned.
Another common argument made about why millennials avoid political participation in the traditional sense is that we believe the system is rigged against us, so we feel as if we shouldn’t bother. It is not that we are too timid to try, it is that we see that it is not worth the effort. Sadly, this is largely true of Americans on a macro level, but when one focuses on millennials specifically, it is clear that our generation has not fallen victim to a sense of hopelessness. First off, we haven’t been around that long. We didn’t experience the Pentagon Papers or Watergate firsthand. Because of our shorter accumulation of life experiences, collectively we are more optimistic about government than the average American. Second, many of the failures we have witnessed, such as the bungling of the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina, were seen largely as due the incompetency of Bush rather than a fundamentally rotten system. (The recent issues with healthcare.gov, while upsetting, are not in the same league as a botched war or a drowned city, as the media will discover in the fullness of time.) Third, a truly cynical generation that believed change was impossible would not have spent hours phone-banking for Obama or days on the street in an Occupy camp. On top of all of this, millennial or not, if one truly thinks the governing system in America has been corrupted by lobbyists and big money, then the logical response is not apathy, but action. If people believe our democracy has been robbed from us, then we should be fighting to get it back.
Our generation is hopeful and our hearts are in the right place, but until now we have lacked the temerity to adopt the political strategies that would turn our hopes into realities. This is unfortunate, because historically it is this nerve that has marked the difference between success and failure.
The proponents of great social movements in American history like the Progressive movement and the Civil Rights movement are respected because they were willing to face up to their challengers and risk a lot more than just offending people. However, it was equally important that these movements engaged in politics with the goal of passing legislation that made Americans’ lives better. Their philosophies made them admirable, but it was this legislative success that made them significant. In our own time, the Tea Party has had more of an impact on American politics than Occupy Wall Street, because they focused on winning victories in the political arena rather than just banging on drums in a park. For those who would point to Obama’s reelection to dismiss the Tea Party’s impact, I would ask them how much pro-millennial legislation has been passed since the Republicans took control of the House based on Tea Party activism in 2010.
While absolute consensus is unattainable, there appears to be large agreement within our generation that things have not panned out for us the way we expected or the way we deserved. Whether it is the millennial studying for the LSAT, the one changing out of a Starbucks uniform in Mom and Dad’s basement, or the one hoping for an Occupy comeback, all of us want a decent chance to make it in this country. By and large, we feel as if we have been denied this for some reason. Some of us acutely blame ourselves, others blame powers beyond our control. The fact is that the fault lies with powers firmly within our control. We can change the direction of this country and the future prospects of our generation, but that means entering the political arena and accepting the dirt and grime that is found there.
The problems we face as a generation are legitimate, and we should act collectively to make sure the government addresses them. This would involve advocating for changes to the way we pay tuition and deal with student debt, demanding a fairer tax code, shifting the government’s priorities to job creation rather than sequestration, drafting a plan to reduce the deficit once unemployment returns to normal, seeking stronger financial regulation and passing meaningful campaign finance reform.
This path would mean getting involved in elective politics and enduring its divisiveness, not shunning it like Occupy Wall Street or disengaging when we get a figure like Obama in the White House. It will be a lot of work, entailing the clear demand for legislation that politicians could support, and then backing those politicians in elections. When these politicians don’t live up to our expectations, we should let them know. Some of these politicians will be hacks. Some due to the demographics of their districts will not vote our way all of the time. We certainly will be dissatisfied at points, but we will be even more dissatisfied if we do nothing.
A group of labor advocates once met with FDR and laid out evidence in support of their cause. After hearing them out, he said, “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.” The message was clear: It is not enough to get your candidates elected or convince them of the justness of your cause, you must pressure them all the way across the legislative finish line. Because if you don’t, they will believe it is politically safer for them to do nothing.
The good news is that our consensus-seeking tendencies, while paralyzing us up to this point, could also prove to be a great political advantage. Politics, while it does possess a mean-spirited edge that drives millennials away, is also a process of coalition building. And coalition building is something at which we excel. Once a majority of us have agreed upon some realizable policy goals, together we can constantly, politely and firmly pressure our fellow millennials and fellow Americans to accept them. But along the way, we will be willing to listen to criticism and accept half-victories. This willingness to adapt, founded in our consensus-based character, will allow us to pursue a positive legislative agenda more effectively than other movements that demand purity at all costs.
In conclusion, the fundamental change we seek in our collective fortunes will not be found by padding our resumes a bit more or waiting out the storm at home. Nor will we achieve success with the feel-good political activism we have tried to date. The problems our generation faces are largely economic, and economic issues are the type of messy problem our generation likes to avoid. Many of us will not agree with the solutions in a broad sense, let alone on the details. But the time has come for us to accept that as a cost. It is also time that we realize that rather than shunning politics, we need to enter it full-heartedly if we are going to improve our lives. Yes, other generations of Americans criticize us for being entitled while ignoring the unique circumstances we face, but those other generations also have legacies that they can be proud of, and we should respect them for that. True, we can defend our generational character, but a better focus is rather how we ourselves will be remembered.
Let our legacy not be the generation that waited for better days, but the one that brought better days to America. Surely we can find consensus on that.