Opinion

Occupy movement must get support from Millennial Generation to survive

As Occupy camps face eviction, the need for the movement to align itself with the values of the Millennial Generation becomes more critical. To earn endorsement from America's most populous generation, Occupy must evolve from a protest movement to a political movement.

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With municipal authorities disrupting and dismantling the Occupy movement’s encampments in cities across the country, many are questioning if the movement can survive without its most visible symbol of sustainability. 

Now that its physical presence is under siege, the need for the movement to attract more members of the Millennial generation – and align itself with its beliefs and behaviors – becomes even more critical. Demographic figures show that any social movement or trend endorsed by America’s youngest and most populous generationthe Millennial generation (born 1982-2003) – is likely to shape or even dominate American life in the decades ahead, while any rejected by it is likely to fall by the wayside.

While the Occupy movement has had some success in appealing to Millennials, it still has more to do before it is fully embraced by the generation, as suggested by the results of a national survey conducted this month by the consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates.

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Gaining widespread Millennial endorsement wouldn’t just represent a PR victory by the Occupy movement. By 2012, when more than 60 percent of this 95-million-strong generation will be 18 or older, almost 1 in 4 American adults will be a Millennial. By the end of this decade, when virtually all Millennials will have come of age, the generation will comprise more than one-third (36 percent) of US adults. Millennial approval and participation is vital to the Occupy movement’s survival going forward.

Demographically, the movement has significant Millennial representation, but it does not appear to be predominantly comprised of Millennials. A survey conducted by Fordham University professor Costas Panagopoulos indicated that the mean age of adult protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park was 33. Since the oldest Millennial is just 29, it is obvious that a fair number of those in the park were members of older generations.

Demonstrations on or near college campuses almost certainly contain larger contingents of Millennials than those elsewhere. Still it is evident that older generations are playing a key role in the Occupy movement, particularly the anarchists and professional left wing agitators who initially energized the protests.

Attitudinally, large majorities of Millennials do concur with the Occupy movement’s view of present day America.

Eight in ten adult Millennials agree that the gap between the rich and the middle class is larger than ever. About three-quarters of Millennials say that big business and Wall Street have too much power, that taxes should be increased on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans (75 percent), and that Wall Street and the financial industry should be punished for their role in the economic recession (71 percent). Two-thirds of the generation favor increased regulation of banks and the financial industry.

Millennials also have a somewhat better assessment of the Occupy movement itself than do older generations. The strongest Millennial perception of the movement is that it is “liberal” (38 percent), not a negative term within the only generation in which liberals and progressives outnumber conservatives and moderates.

By contrast, the strongest perceptions held of the Occupy movement by Baby Boomers and senior citizen Silents is that the movement is “anti-establishment” (39 percent), “radical” (30 percent), and even “revolutionary” (25 percent).

Overall, the Millennial generation is evenly divided about the movement, with a quarter still uncertain. Even so, Millennials are more positive about Occupy than older generations, among whom 34 percent hold favorable opinions and 44 percent negative.

But despite their sympathy with the movement, Millennials are not yet ready to fully endorse the Occupy movement. This gap between the support Millennials have for the beliefs of the protest movement and their less than enthusiastic backing of it, suggests both the opportunity for success Occupy still has and the danger to the movement if it fails to focus its strategy on attracting Millennials to its cause.

One problem, according to observers ranging from newspapers to high school and college students and even to the “belly of the beast,” Wall Street itself, is that the Occupy movement lacks strong leaders who can guide and personalize it. A large majority of the public at large and Millennials in particular (67 percent each) agrees with this assessment.

Most of the major social movements of the 20th century had charismatic leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (civil rights) and Gloria Steinem (women’s liberation), who played this key role. But in the social network-driven 21st century, movements appear, by design, to be “leaderless,” and lacking in clear structure. They are horizontal rather than vertical.

Millennials are, in fact, a bit less concerned than other generations that the Occupy movement is “leaderless”; a slight majority of them (54 percent) either say this is a good thing or at least provides a mixture of both advantages and disadvantages. Moreover, a scattered and loose structure and lack of obvious and well-known national leaders did not prevent the tea party movement from being a major force in the 2010 midterm elections or the contest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

A far more important concern is that about 7 in 10 Millennials cannot figure out just what the Occupy movement is and what its goals really are. In only a few scattered locations, such as college campuses in California where there was a call for tuition relief, did Occupy protestors cite definite actionable objectives or make specific demands. In contrast to the tea party's clear and consistent opposition to tax increases or “big government” programs like “Obamacare,” the goals of the Occupy movement often seem unvoiced and inchoate.

Unlike the ideologically driven Boomer Generation, which was content to use teach-ins and other talk-a-thon strategies to endlessly discuss, if not actually advance, its causes, Millennials bring a strong dose of pragmatism to their desire to change the world and would be more likely to participate in Occupy activities if they were more action-oriented.

In the end, if the Occupy movement is to become Millennial and really effect change, it must do more than simply inspire sympathy and sentiment. It must move beyond being a protest movement and become a political movement, one with specific goals that engages and alters the political process. Only by using these and other tactics to attract the Millennial Generation will the Occupy movement break out of its original, limited conception as simply being a way to express unhappiness with current economic conditions.

To fully achieve its potential, even without a permanent, physical presence in urban America, it must take the steps necessary to become a decisive, action-oriented voice within an emerging and powerful generation.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute. They are co-authors of the newly published “Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America” and “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics."

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