Don't call them slackers anymore. By helping to thrust Barack Obama into the White House, young people have stridently shaken off their reputation as unmotivated and civically apathetic. Last week's election was owned by young people.
Clearly Obama's victory was big for African-Americans of any age. But it also marked a seismic generational shift in American politics. Before they rocked the vote, young people flexed their activist muscles during the long campaign by employing tech-savvy tactics that elude older generations.
Yes they hit the streets and worked the phones. But more important, they sent text messages, blogged, instant messaged, posted YouTube videos, designed Obama iPhone applications, and mobilized online support for the man who represents two things that young people thrive on: hope and change.
Obama acknowledged as much in his victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park: "It [the campaign] grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy, who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep."
This was grass-roots organizing – some have called it netroots – for the 21st century, and its oomph has perhaps changed American politics for the foreseeable future. No doubt Obama's methods will push campaign strategists to court the online and under-30 crowd – or "Generation We." This election has proven that they are a force that the Washington establishment must reckon with. Now the task is to keep the momentum going.
In 2016, young voters under age 30 will be the largest voting block at 100 million strong. They will be the most educated American generation, according to Michael Connery's book "Youth to Power." And they see their inheritance from the baby boomers as an America in decline.
Yet they remain optimistic. They also want to change the perception that America is an arrogant and greedy nation. And this yearning to make a difference is what Obama successfully tapped into.
I am a journalism teacher and administrator, and the bulk of high school students I interact with daily attest to this. Many already describe themselves as activists and they say they are ready for America to change course. To quote a student's recent journal: "Adults have sort of screwed up the world and WE NEED to do something about it before our time's up…. Look at the economy, the environment, all the poverty and crime, all the intolerance, the Iraq war … politicians get nowhere and they're always arguing. We can't just sit back and watch."
In an almost postpolitical manifesto, a Generation We Facebook group declares on its online profile: "WE are independent – politically, socially, and philosophically – and we are spearheading a period of sweeping change in America and around the world. WE are poised to change our nation and our world for the better. We will bring about progressive change to make the world a better place."
Although many of these young, new voters registered as Democrats in support of Obama, they are far more wedded to progressive political and social views than to any party. This is perhaps a crack in the door that the GOP and other parties can pry open to gain a foothold.
Yes, future campaigns must change their political dynamic by employing tech-savvy outreach efforts. It is no coincidence that Obama turned to 24-year-old Chris Hughes, a Facebook cofounder, to direct online organizing efforts in a way that empowered supporters to organize events and fundraise without waiting for direct orders from the top. But to be truly successful, they must also effectively call young people to, as both McCain and Obama call it, "serve a cause greater than yourself."
"The election of Senator Obama was the first step in the Generation We Revolution," writes Eric Greenberg, author of "Generation We." He goes on to say, "[T]he election results fit squarely with their thoughts and sentiments of dissatisfaction and the need for change. Obama is an icon for this. "
Credit Obama for making voting cool again and for firing up a politically alienated generation. He correctly banked on them as being ripe for committing to something greater than themselves. In bringing Obama to power, young voters are firmly positioned to change the political landscape in America for the foreseeable future. And you know what? The kids are more than all right.