The rising political power of the Millenial Generation

By Caitlin Baggott of Portland, Oregon. Caitlin is a co-founder of the Bus Project - and will be speaking at Reed College's Vollum Center at 7:30 p.m. tonight on this topic. Prior to her presentation, Reed College will be screening the Biden/Palin debate at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Throughout the '90s and the early '00s, we learned from the media, our civic leaders, and Harvard professors that widespread disengagement from public life and record low voter turnout were the signals of our pre-destined decline. We were bowling alone, and our mental, physical, and civic health suffered from our isolated, inert, and apathetic lifestyles. The citizenship mavens wrung their hands and furrowed their brows most deeply over young people.

But only a few years later, the tune we're singing is slightly more upbeat. We hear rumors of a new generation -- the youngest of which are in middle school, and the oldest 29 or 30 -- that will become the most involved generation in decades. We learn of mistakes in reports and media coverage about young voter participation in the last several years. It seems that the reports of our civic death were greatly exaggerated.

Narratives about youth civic participation in America are always dramatic. From the heady nation-crafting of the young leaders of first progressive movement, the record turnout of young voters for FDR, to the culture clashes, mass marches and protests of the Baby Boomer youth in the 60s. In the 80s and 90s the story was equally dramatic--but it was a story of extreme social disenfranchisement. And now, a decade later, the narrative is one of profound cultural and political change. Will this new generation fulfill the utopian promises of current pundits? And what role are the slackers of Gen X playing in this overnight transformation of youth politics?

We know three things about the next generation, who call themselves the Millennials. (Don't even try calling them Gen Y.)

These are promising indicators for the progressive movement. Part of the power of the Millennial generation is their raw numbers. To offer some sloppy math, let's take a look at that 63% support for positive government figure. If Millennials are roughly 80 million strong, 63% of their generation is equivalent to 84% of Gen Xers (roughly 60 million), or 69% of Baby Boomers (roughly 73 million). At what point in the last decades have we had 84% or even 69% support for government policies that expand opportunity and promote prosperity for all?

But if we look at the history of youth movements in America, we see that successful youth movements don't spring fully formed from any one generation. Youth movements are necessarily multi-generational. Most of the early agitators and organizers of 60s were members of the generation before the Baby Boom, though young Baby Boomers were arguably the most active, vibrant, and forceful participants in the movements of that time. No social movement arises in a moment in time. It grows, often out of sight, until conditions call us to bring it to fruit. Leadership matures – and becomes evident when it calls to enough of a mass of people to ask them to step out of the day to day, and stand for change.

In this election cycle, we hear the fear in corners that a loss at the presidential level might result in a profound civic depression. That youth, in particular, will give up hope, decide that reality bites, and fall out of the civic process for decades. My sense is different. The groundswell of civic engagement in the Millennial generation isn't so frail. And in large part, it draws its strength and resilience from leadership and infrastructure developed by Gen Xers and Boomers. Go figure.

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    63% of 18-29 year olds believed the role of government should be to promote the principle of a strong community and policies that expand opportunity and promote prosperity for all....

    I think that this horrible sense of hope and penchant for civic engagement, at least here in Oregon can be blamed squarely on the Bus Project.

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    I agree with Pat. I also think it can be a credit to parents who witnessed some very egregious behavior and wanted to be different and their kids to be different. Though there may be some problems with some of the rearing techniques - I still pout a little with out a mom-pliment - but mostly, we are a thinking, feeling, hopeful generation that wants to make this space we call Earth better space than what we inherited.

  • RichW (unverified)

    I mentor young men (age 12-21) in North Portland. While I observe a lot of "rawness" in these young men, I also see a positive attitude in several areas. Respect for womanhood is one of them. A sense of community service is another, one that lead them to greater self-worth as well.

    Intially, I was amazed because, before I got involved, I stereotyped them as angry, neglected youth. They are more neglected than my own generation was in teenage years, but they are not angry. They are curious and wanting to learn more about life, and simply need more role models who can provide that.

    A trivial, but relevant anecdote occured this week. We have a group "sleepover' planned for Saturday through Sunday morning. When i told them that other advisors will be on duty Saturday evening so I can use my season opera tickets, I kind of expected some snarky remarks. Instead I got several questions about the opera, including if I will dress up in a tux (I will). A couple of them even wanted to know how to get tickets to opera performances and how much they cost. This is what I mean about curiousity.

  • Greg D. (unverified)

    Measuring votes after the fact seems like a legitimate activity. Predicting votes before the election seems more like mental masturbation. Somewhat satisfying, but not related to the real thing.

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    I'm in the oldest bunch in the Millenial Generation (turned 30 this year).

    I think an even better thing is the lessons we're teaching our children. Our daughter Abby is extremely interested in civics, voting, etc. And she's only 6.

  • Jefferson Smith (unverified)

    The folks at Reed after the debate last night saw a really great talk from this same Caitlin Baggott as part of the Public Policy Lectures series.

    Really great stuff. It should repeated in several venues.

  • RW (unverified)

    Rich W: thanks for that. I see this in my son's cohort. The respect for womanhood is particularly nice. Chivalry, yes, but also that companionship of the mind, the sharing and testing of ideas in a comradely, probing way. I lose heart sometimes. Your post reminded me that they are out there. And my son will be encountering your young men as he jumps out.

    <h2>Thanks for what you do. Too little male investment that is about showing up as opposed to "feeling it" and fancying that this equals commitment.</h2>
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