by Michael Bock
This generation — known as the Millennials — is incredibly different than previous generations. As its spending and voting powers grow, this generation will demand a very different world. We need young people at the table to save our institutions.
Initiatives meant to bring the youth voice into local government and private industry often center on two motives Some suggest engagement is necessary to provide youth with leadership experience for when they take their turn at the helm, while others propose that youth leadership will help organizations engage young customers and constituents in the present. Yet these rationales underestimates the impact of the Millennials, failing to grasp just how integral youth participation will be to ensuring the survival of existing institutions over the next 30 years.
This generation is the largest ever. Estimates hover around 80 million — outnumbering even the Baby Boomers by a few million. With that size comes incredible influence through spending power, votes, and other civic engagement. Based on both quantitative as well as anecdotal research, it is clear that Millenials’ priorities and values are very different from those of their parents and grandparents. For better or worse, we are frustrated with “business as usual.”
In their 2010 report “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” the Pew Research Center asked each generations to define what gives them their unique character. Baby Boomers identified their distinguishing characteristics to be work ethic, respectfulness, and values/morals while the Gen Xers identify their use of technology, their work ethic, and their tradition and conservativeness as the top three sources of distinctiveness.
Millennials, however, viewed themselves very differently. They identified their top defining characteristics as their use of technology, their music and popular culture, and their liberalness and tolerance. Millennials’ self-concept does not just differ, but fundamentally contradicts, how Gen Xers and Baby Boomers define themselves.
As previous generations shuffled along a new path, making minor progress in adopting technology or accepting diversity, institutions have struggled to keep up. Our nation’s social safety net, for example, is beginning to strain under the weight of retiring baby boomers. While government and private companies have grown in size, they have been less adept at responding to rapidly shifting social landscapes. And where previous generations crawled or walked, the Millennials are taking leaps and bounds. Institutions’ inability to respond could prove catastrophic.
Millenials’ values will fundamentally shift where we live and work, what we buy, and how we interact with each other, both socially and politically. My contemporaries are not interested in living in the suburbs; doing uninspired work for a large corporation; buying from companies whose values we disagree with; and merely accepting diversity rather than celebrating it. Even more fundamentally, they are far more connected than previous generations, interacting with each other and the world in a drastically different way.
Many wonder if this generation, coddled and enchanted by smart phones and computers, could ever make a serious impact in the “real” world.
Their question was answered as the world bid farewell to the first decade of the 21st Century and the Arab world was slipping into a period of civil unrest. Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, a civil war in Libya, and sustained protests in Syria and Yemen, among other nations throughout the Middle East, showed that Millennials could drive meaningful change through social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.
If modern institutions—public and private, domestic and international—hope to remain viable, they will need to adapt to the values and norms of Millennials. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s clumsy, embarrassing and ultimately failed attempt to ban Twitter illustrates this necessity. Public and private institutions will be forced to redefine themselves and engage Millennials now, both as advisors and partners, or risk engaging them as adversaries later.
Michael Bock is a first year Master of Public Policy candidate at the Batten School, and is currently finishing his Bachelors in Political and Social Thought. He lived in Helsinki, Kuwait City, and Vancouver before moving to Charlottesville. Mike is fascinated by urban policy and has experience working for municipal government, community foundations, as well as on several education reform initiatives with State Farm and America’s Promise Alliance.