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.)
- At approximately 75-80 million people (demographers disagree on where they stop and start) they are either slightly smaller or several million larger than the Baby Boom generation. In this election they're a big slice of the voting age population. In 8 years, when they all come of age, they'll be more than a third of it.
- They're the most diverse cohort in American history. In addition to increased racial and ethnic diversity, nearly 20 percent of all young Americans were either immigrants or the children of immigrants in 2006. 82 percent reported that they personally knew or worked with someone who was gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.
- They promote and believe in government as an agent for the public benefit. In one of many such surveys, 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, not just a few, compared to 35% who thought the role of government should be to promote the principle of self-reliance and policies of limited government and low taxes.
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.