What's the Deal with Millennials?

What's the Deal with Millennials?

Why do they do what they do politically?  What’s the end game, what’s driving opinion now…and what might into the future? 

There are a lot of opinions on that.  Most are based on measurements made using fairly traditional instruments: polls, spending habits, TV/video entertainment ratings.  And of course, elections, also analyzed by polling, both exit and quantitative. 

I was watching “60 Minutes” recently…not because it’s a “news” program, but because once the football games are over, Sunday night network TV is pretty weak.  One recent story was particularly interesting…sort of a follow up to the demotion of Pluto a decade ago from a planet to something less impressive.  But, according to Astronomer Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution for Science, there’s mounting evidence of a 9th planet.  Way out there.  Really big.  This would restore our dignity as an important solar system.  (See the video clip of the interview here if you like that sort of thing: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-solar-system-mysterious-undiscovered-planet-nine/ ). 

So what does Pluto have to do with millennials and how they behave?  Nothing really, except that the way they prove its classification is through an unimaginably complex mathematical formula that, if you can follow it, seems to “prove” something that can’t be seen by just by analyzing the behavior of what can be observed.

Up until now, most analysis of the millennial vote or cohort has been limited to examination of current behavior as measured by known, reliable, and proven instruments.  The problem with this seems to me to be that it is mostly descriptive in nature. 

In the wake of the 2016 elections, perhaps it would be useful to take a moment to reflect on something that can be very hard to understand: how life experiences shape political, or in the case of millennials, community behavior.

I’m not a sociologist or anthropologist; I’m just a political operative with a few years of watching and working politics around the country.  For a long time, the campaign formulae were reasonably well-understood, including the importance of local politics and local traditions. Local politics are traditions are critical to this discussion.  because social media has changed them so  dramatically and no age segment has been more profoundly impacted than millennials.  Today, “local” has been replaced by “community.”  And community is a phenomenon that stretches well beyond geographic lines and is determined instead by communications platforms and with whom the consumer interacts.  Because of this, there’s an identity within communications communities that is powerful, but also shallow in many ways.

The shallowness comes from the brevity with which news spreads on these platforms and the resulting lack of detail, thought, research, and debate.  The power, however, comes from a profound shared experience that will drive this group’s politics and behaviors for a lifetime.  That experience is best described as “mediocrity”. 

Sounds harsh?  Not really.  I’m not talking about the people.  I’m talking about the world they are inheriting that they must inevitably shape to their liking.  Consider that, in their lifetimes, millennials have not known true prosperity and a growing, robust economy and job market.  Consider that, many owe thousands for their educations, but face difficult career prospects and paths to paying off their debt.  Consider that, for most of their lives they have seen war, conflict, terrorism, economic collapse, and a decade of stagnation in the job market in which they find themselves.  And finally, consider that no politician in their lifetime has really made a difference that they can feel in their everyday lives. 

Millennials have seen a world where a handful of people have become unimaginably wealthy while the vast majority have struggled just to maintain.  They’ve been lectured, talked down to, and treated like lab rats by a political establishment that does not understand them and only views them as a vote in November or the next source of revenue for a government that is increasingly unable to perform even simple services efficiently.  They aren’t partisan, but they prioritize the collective good because, to them, it’s the only real path to prosperity.  Consequently, matters broadly defined as “social justice” play an outsized role in their thinking. 

So how do we talk to them, and how do we work with them to achieve needed change in public policy? 

  1. Shared experiences demand shared solutions.  Present solutions that impact large swaths of people.
  2. Special interests are suspect.  Never lead with this “glass jaw”.
  3. Understanding complex policy decisions isn’t a problem, but people need to know about that complexity and must be provided with resources to learn.  Make it easy to access online, and make it balanced and succinct.
  4. Understanding who gets hurt by any decision is as important as understanding who benefits from it.  Be honest yet forceful in proposing solutions that ultimately benefit all.
  5. Link their support to the promise of opportunity and prosperity. 
  6. Speak to the need for a “sea change” in the balance of power between institutions and the community.
  7. Place a high value on individual activism that leads to community action. 
  8. Understand that while they get most of their information online, there is a healthy skepticism about the reliability of almost everything. 

Bottom line?  Millennials are a large group of young Americans facing a very uncertain future.  They have already weathered less-than-optimal times in their lives, and to move forward they need a sense of authority and empowerment that their community of interests will develop its own influence on public policy. 

What do they need?  Better information and education on matters that affect them beyond social justice.  Economics will play an increasingly important role in their lives and making this case now will benefit those needing their support for policy initiatives today and into the future. 



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