The following blog post originally appeared on the Demos blog in March 2010. Public Works began as a program at Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action in 2002 and operated as part of this organization until it became an independent nonprofit in 2012.
Please Millennials, Save Us from Ourselves
It seems like we could use some good news. All around us we see public services and systems being dismantled and downsized in the roiling wake of our national economic catastrophe. States and the federal government are grappling with the worst fiscal outlook in generations, and the public sector’s role in the quality of life of our communities is being diminished and undermined. Decades of progress in public health, environmental quality and education are being threatened. And, we watch in dismay as our political institutions seem unable to cope effectively with the many challenges we face.
But, a ray of hope appeared last week in the form of a comprehensive look at the Millennial Generation released by the Pew Research Center. Titled Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, this report is part of an ongoing project at Pew in partnership with PBS that began with a documentary series called Generation Next. The good news is this: a new generation is coming and they want to fix things. They are confident, tolerant, educated, and connected. They are civic-minded and want to reclaim government as a tool for public good. And, they can’t come soon enough.
The Millennial Generation is generally defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. It is an enormous generational cohort that is set to exceed the Baby Boomers in size and cultural impact. As the authors of Generation We note:
…the Millennials currently include 95 million young people up to 30 years of age–the biggest, most diverse, and best-educated age cohort in the history of the nation. In 2016, they will be 100 million strong and positioned to dominate the American political scene for 30-40 years.
But, more important than the sheer numbers are the characteristics of this generation that will affect our social and political life for years to come. There is much to be learned from the extensive Pew study, but two points are worth highlighting given our current circumstances. Millennials are more hopeful and confident about their future and that of the country than other age groups, and they support an active role for government:
More than half of Millennials (53%) say government should do more to solve problems, while 42% say government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.
([L]arge numbers of young adults (67%) say they would prefer a bigger government that provides more services over a smaller government that provides fewer services. Among older Americans, only 41% feel this way.)
The News Hour on PBS ran a segment about the Pew report and their conversations with Millennials reflected the survey findings:
I think, after seeing some of the stuff that happened in the previous administration, I really feel there’s a lot we can do this time around. And it’s not necessarily all going to be private sector. It’s going to be the government. There’s only so much Microsoft, Google, as an individual company, can say, vs. America as the aggregate.
The new Pew research reinforces other recent findings and observations about this generation. Generation We: How Millennial Youth Are Taking Over America and Changing Our World Forever is another cultural analysis of the Millennials. Among its observations:
Generation We is non-cynical and civic-minded. They believe in the value of political engagement and are convinced that government can be a powerful force for good.
Generation We believes strongly in the potential of government to do good. They don’t see government as a panacea for all problems and reject socialist doctrine as outdated and discredited. But they believe in the power of the collective—including government—to achieve the greater good for society as a whole.
They believe in our American system, but fear it is being hijacked by special interests and self-serving power elite. Generation We endorses ambitious problem-solving goals for our nation on a scale that can only be achieved with government playing a large role.
In Millennials Rising, authors Neil Howe and William Strauss make a convincing case that the Millennials are America’s next “civic” generation. The generational analysis they employ suggests that civic generations follow ideological generations–the Boomers in this case. Civic generations are less interested in fighting over competing values and are more interested in finding pragmatic solutions to society’s challenges:
Where the boomer upheaval focused on issues of self, culture, and morals, the Millennial upheaval will focus on issues of community, politics, and deeds. They will rebel against the culture by cleaning it up, rebel against political cynicism by touting trust, rebel against individualism by stressing teamwork, rebel against adult pessimism by going positive, and rebel against societal ennui by actually getting things done.
In Millennial Makeover, authors Winograd and Hais echo these observations. In February 2008 they penned an influential Washington Post column titled “The Boomers Had Their Day. Make Way for the Millennials”:
American history suggests that about every 80 years, a civic generation emerges to make over the country after a period of upheaval caused by the fervor of an idealist generation. In 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932 and 1968, as members of new generations–alternately idealist and civic–began to vote in large numbers, the United States experienced major political shifts. Civic generations react against the idealist generations’ efforts to use politics to advance their own moral causes and focus instead on re-energizing social, political and government institutions to solve pressing national issues.
Given the many challenges our country faces today and the contentious wrangling over the proper role of government in this new century I take hope in these findings. At the heart of all our biggest challenges in coming years–whether they be environmental or fiscal, social or political–will be the need for an active and focused government. We will need civic-minded pragmatists at the helm.
The Pew study is also an important reminder. For those who are working every day to protect public services and systems in these tough times and who are struggling to assert the essential role of government in the life of our country and economy, we must consciously and deliberately engage our 20-somethings in this debate. In our field work over the past several years, Public Works has had the privilege to work with a number of coalitions who are taking this challenge seriously and it has been heartening to see more and more Millennials in our trainings and meetings.
Reading the Pew Research also gave me some perspective. America is always and forever remaking itself. And in the past, civic-minded generations have played a central role in reshaping the American story and how we address our challenges and create new opportunities. Much of today’s social and political debate feels stuck in the well-worn ruts of the past 30 years. But the front edge of the Millennial generation is now entering positions of leadership and decision-making. Given what the research says about the way they view the world and what they want to do about it, Generation Next is about to reshape us again. Change is coming.
As I was working on this post I could not help but think about the contrast between this hopeful portrait of our next generation and the average ages of those who are making so many fateful decisions today:
Average age of the US Senate: 63.1* Average age of US House Member: 57.2* Average age of US Governor: 58 *The grayest Congress ever.