In our newest book, “Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America,” we describe why the leadership of all the nation’s institutions will be challenged during this decade by the emerging Millennial Generation, born 1982-2003. These young people believe in individuals taking action as a group at the local level to bring about a more “accessible, equitable, community-driven” world. That closely describes the “Occupy” protests.
Shortly after our book was published, these protests sprung up seemingly spontaneously in more than 1,400 cities across the country, leading one commentator to suggest we should be given “the Nobel Prize for Predictions.”
We’ll leave that for others to chew on, especially because we are not yet certain that these protests are Millennial enough. If they were, Occupy would have a greater chance of success as a movement. But Millennials clearly sympathize with the fundamental message of Occupy. Beset by more than $1 trillion in college loan debt and high unemployment, they believe the system isn’t working for them.
Millennials readily agree with Occupiers that Wall Street firms and other financial institutions played a major role in jeopardizing the nation’s and their generation’s economic future – and they haven’t paid a price for doing so. While Millennials overwhelmingly support President Obama (preferring him by a 2:1 margin over his major potential Republican opponents), one of the generation’s disappointments with his administration is its unwillingness to impose penalties on Wall Street for behaving badly.
It’s as if America’s most important parent has forgotten the first tenet of every Millennial family – not abiding by the rules will have consequences.
In terms of process, Millennials are just fine with the leaderless, horizontal nature of the Occupy demonstrations, something some older generations deride, criticize, or attempt to change. For instance, we learned from Millennials we spoke to within the past several weeks in New York and Boston, that decisions at Occupy Boston could be made with 75 percent agreement while Occupy Wall Street’s consensus rules required a unanimous vote before action could be taken. Because Millennials have been taught both the value and practice of consensus decision-making since they were toddlers, none of those we spoke with questioned the practicality of such an approach.
However, on a tactical and personal level the Millennials we talked to were a lot less enthusiastic about actually joining the protests than their economic circumstances might have suggested. In part this reluctance stemmed from their feeling that the protesters had no clear action agenda, a reflection of the generation’s pragmatic impulses.
This was often characterized as a “lack of goals,” but also sometimes by asking questions like, “Why don’t they all just go out and get registered to vote and tell everyone else to do so?” Millennials are an idealistic generation that believes in making the world a better place by working together, but they don’t think this happens just by talking about the problem. A clearer course of action on the part of the Occupy movement would appeal directly to the desire of Millennials to get involved where and when they can make an immediate difference.
Some of the reluctance to become personally involved was understandably based on individual circumstances. In direct contrast to what motivated Boomer protesters in the sixties, some worried that joining such protests might embarrass their parents. Others didn’t want to risk their perfect record of proper civic behavior by getting arrested. For most Millennials, success in life has become a series of hoops that need to be jumped through. Anything that might jeopardize their ability to do that is often avoided.
Still, that didn’t stop many of the Millennials we talked to in New York and Boston from at least visiting the protests, even if they made sure to do so in their best-looking clothes to distinguish themselves to police who might be deciding whom to arrest. If Occupiers brushed up their appearance, these Millenials said, protest critics would have a harder time denigrating the movement as only made up of the unemployed or poor people.
Visuals matter a lot to Millennials and many observers from older generations remark on how generally well-behaved the crowds at the protests have been. Occupiers have organized the tasks of clean-up, food distribution, security, and even publicity in ways designed to reflect well upon the gatherings, a clear indication of the overwhelmingly Millennial demographics of those who have actually joined the protests.
Of course the outbreak of urban protests of any kind has reawakened nostalgia among some Baby Boomers, who have rushed to the aid of the Occupy movement bringing promises of notoriety and money as well as advice on tactics and strategies based upon what seemed to work in the 1960s.
Millennials respect their parents and often look to Boomers for mentoring and guidance. Consequently, Boomers will be politely welcomed at the protests, but those hoping this will enable their generation to finally foment the revolution of its youthful dreams are bound to be disappointed. Millennials want to fix institutions or establish new ones, but they have little time and patience for tearing them down.
As Bill Maher, a Boomer who clearly gets Millennial beliefs, put it, “They aren’t looking for free love, they want paid employment.”
It should not surprise anyone that this Millennial-dominated protest movement is organizing locally and using social networking sites from Facebook to Twitter, and, most effectively, YouTube, to build its momentum. To be even more successful, it will need to further localize its goals.
For example, Occupy Los Angeles is pushing the LA City Council to adopt a “responsible banking” ordinance that would invest the city’s funds only in those financial institutions that did not participate in the financial wheeling-dealing that led to the 2008 financial crisis. Just as an insistence on only investing in companies that abided by the Sullivan Principles in trade relations with South Africa proved to be effective in helping end that country’s apartheid regime, this kind of locally focused demand could provide additional energy and a series of growing victories to the cause.
In this and many other ways, we believe the success of the Occupy movement will depend on its ability to become even more aligned with Millennial beliefs and behaviors as it evolves. If the demonstrators can avoid becoming co-opted by other generations or groups with their own agendas based on grievances of the past, and focus instead on the changes they wish to see going forward, there is a very good chance that the Occupy protests will become a major milestone in the development of America in the Millennial era.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and 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.”