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Millennials Rising: Clicks vs. Change?

By Tom Watson on July 18, 20082 Comments

While it is great to build vast lists online, real “change”—the watchword of the millennials—takes action, the breaking of the virtual barrier, and not merely clicking a few links. This is a generation predisposed to believing that action on their part will lead to real change.

In their fascinating study of millennials and the changing American political landscape, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais argue that the adoption of new communication technology, along with other factors such as diversity and high self-esteem, creates an opportunity for a political shift away from the stasis of two old political parties battling it out for minor shifts in policy, to a new drive for public service that transcends partisan politics. In Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube & the Future of American Politics, they write that “the tectonic plates undergirding America’s current political landscape are beginning to shift. The resulting cataclysm will wash away the current politics of polarization and ideological deadlock, putting in place a new landscape of collective purpose and national consensus that involves individuals and communities in solving the nation’s problems.”

This is heady stuff, and I am tempted to heed veteran progressive policy analyst Micah Sifry’s admonition not to “fetishize the millennials.” Micah’s point is that, being human, the young activists of today will follow the same pattern of pursuing some degree of self-interest as did all the generations that came before—that, and, of course, the fact that there are people over 40 doing important work in social change. When Winograd and Hais state that “Millennials are the largest and most racially diverse generation of Americans ever,” it is tempting to add “to date” as a snarky postscript. After all, the Boomers held the same title not so long ago.

But Winograd and Hais do make a compelling argument for a rare confluence of demographic change: “. . . there are now twice as many Millennials as Gen-Xers and already a million more Millennials alive than Baby Boomers,” they write, and cite various studies to show that this group is both more socially aware and more self-confident than preceding generations of Americans. That awareness, along with the high cost of higher education, will create the right conditions for a new movement toward national service—clearly the fondest hope Winograd and Hais hold for the millennials. “Above all,” they write, “national service will create a bonding and values-reinforcing experience almost as powerful as the GI generation’s service in the Armed Forces did three generations ago. In the same way that World War II boot camps helped to break down America’s ethnic and racial silos, twenty-first century experiences of working together for a common goal will institutionalize Millennial values of family, responsibility, and diversity as ‘American values’ for future decades.”

This is a theme I’m exploring in more depth in chapter five of CauseWired – what do you think?

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