What defines a generation? For Ernest Hemingway and other American expatriates living abroad after World War I, it was a phrase Gertrude Stein always attributed to a garage mechanic: “You are all a lost generation.” Hemingway borrowed the phrase as the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises; it aptly characterized the disillusionment young people felt in the wake of war, economic deprivation, and a growing sense of despair about human progress.
These days, disillusionment is once again a prevalent feeling among young people—especially in the current climate shaped by political gridlock, student debt, and stagnant job market. A growing crowd of commentators and advertisers seem desperate to use this disillusionment to define today’s cohort of 18-34 year olds, a “generation that is incredibly diverse, the most educated in United States history, very politically active and informed,” said Jake Horowitz, co-founder and editor-in-chief at Mic, at a recent event at New America NYC. Despite attempts “in political circles and in media” to portray his generation as apathetic or lazy, “we’re deeply skeptical of politicians [and] corporations. But we have optimism too, uniquely so.”
The data support Horowitz’s conclusions. When it comes to government especially, young people may be disillusioned, but at the same time, they believe deeply in government’s potential to create change. In other words: today’s young adults aren’t lost—they’re found. Or at least they’ve found their voices, says Joelle Gamble, national director for the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network—the first student-run policy organization in the U.S. Barbara Bush, co-founder and president of Global Health Corps (an organization dedicated to health equity), agrees. “Now with different platforms where your voice can actually be contributing to dialogue,” she says, “everyone has a voice.”
What works for Millennials is a community-oriented and interconnected approach. It’s not “us telling you what your agenda should be, but you being able to build it yourself.”
Horowitz is curious about how much “the M-word” (they don’t use the term “Millennial” at Mic, he was quick to point out) contributes to the stereotype of a selfie-obsessed generation that fundamentally misunderstands what young people today are about and what they want. Using the word “millennial” isn’t the problem, says Sara Valenzuela, director of external relations for Letitia James, New York City’s public advocate. Rather, the issue is refusing to be defined by a word that few who use it can describe or understand. “In terms of civic engagement and in terms of government, people are banging their heads against the wall on how to reach us, because there’s no one set way to do it.”
Bush often gets asked at meetings to speak for what “the Millennials” think about a particular issue, and as she says with a rueful laugh, “I can’t possibly speak for every Millennial.” Valenzuela—who worked on Capitol Hill for five years—emphasized that her generation is more than the M-word: “Look at the people in this room: there’s no way all of us relate to one singular thing.”
The drawbacks to this reductive approach to young people aren’t limited to their feeling stereotyped or pigeon-holed—their potential contributions to public life are also being overlooked. For Bush, “Millennials have huge value right now,” because they grew up more “globally connected” and as a result, “we do all have a voice, whether we use it well or not.”
Gamble believes that what sets Millennials apart (rather than “defining” them) is “our ability to amplify things from the ground level.” This is particularly true for Millennial activists, who still do participate in “direct action” tactics, but who also contribute to the rise of phenomena like Black Twitter.
Gamble put her finger on one possible reason for the disconnect between Millennials and the generations who have come before them. “We’re being disruptive,” and—according to a Pew Research poll—this includes a sharp decline in trust for political and religious institutions. Because “the status quo has to change to reach us,” Gamble proposed, Millennials’ preference for horizontal modes of civic engagement instead of top-down forms of communication unsettles older generations. What works for Millennials is a community-oriented and interconnected approach. It’s not “us telling you what your agenda should be, but you being able to build it yourself.”
According to Bush, 40 percent of the participants in Global Health Corps quit their previous jobs to work on issues they care about and “every single one of our fellows wants to solve huge problems.” And despite headlines that suggest Millennials aren’t service-oriented, Valenzuela says, we see examples like the Hollaback! app that illustrate how start-ups can be drivers of social change.
When it comes to politics, Gamble says, a participatory framework is necessary to engage young people. Valenzuela offered an example and a proposal for what that framework could look like. Her boss, Letitia James, is putting forward a bill on campus sexual assault. “She’s bringing her bill before 200 students and letting them rip it apart and re-write it. I think that’s a better way of engaging them. And guess what? From a political and a legislative perspective that’s a much better bill, when the community that it’s affecting is actually involved in it.”
And if participation is what we want, Valenzuela demanded, why isn’t Election Day a national holiday? The systems that structure voting should change, she says, because young people do care about who’s in office—they just relate more to issues, instead of parties and politicians. “The women in this audience—we are caring whether a candidate runs on healthcare for women ... for people who come from immigrant families, whether or not that politician believes that immigration reform is a priority—those are the things that our generation cares about.”
While it’s important to understand Millennials’ complexities and respect their voices, the speakers also urged the audience to be attentive to inter-generational dialogue. Gamble said it’s important to talk about the generation coming along after Millennials, and Valenzuela pointed to the generation who came before: Those are the leaders we need to be learning from but also the ones that need to reach back and pull us forward.”
Horowitz brought the conversation full circle by asking what the most important issue for young people will be in 2016. At the end of the day, said Bush, “every issue is connected.” “I think we all have issues ... that are important to where we live,” she remarked—implying that community issues that matter are potential areas for inter-generational exchange. Bush still marvels at older people who say they “don’t understand Millennials.” Perhaps they should hit the pause button on trying to define this generation and try talking with them instead. “You can ask people what they’re interested in,” Bush observed, “[or] how they want to communicate and how they would want to partner with you. I think instead of categorizing one group as this elusive group, we all have the power to make relationships with people.”
This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.