letter to a young political reformer

O’Hare Airport, Feb. 14

Dear –,

I am excited that you are helping to organize a political reform movement that you frame in generational terms. That is always a valuable contribution—and never more so than today. Thank you for asking me for advice.

Just between ourselves, I happen to be skeptical of generational analysis. Babies are born every second, distinctions among generations are largely arbitrary, and the trends are gradual and often wavy and divergent rather than linear. Many supposed generational characteristics of today’s young people (such as your resistance to party labels) are actually typical of youth at other times as well. When I stare at the data, what strikes me most is the tremendous and stubborn variation within your generation by region, ideology, race, and especially, social class.

When people present me with positive or negative generalizations about Millennials, I often want to push back.

For example: are you comfortable with diversity and difference? Yes, with respect to sexual orientation, but not necessarily with respect to race. An outright majority of young White people wrongly believe that discrimination is worse against Whites than against African Americans. As a whole cohort, you are racially diverse, but Whites and Blacks are less likely to attend the same schools than at any time in the last 50 years.

Are you politically active? Many of you are—but about as many are not. The youth turnout rate in the last two elections was around 50%, which is absolutely typical for elections since 1976.

I say all this “just between ourselves” because it can come across as discouraging. Before they can enter the national debate, young activists are expected to assemble evidence that their cohort is somehow unique. I would say, instead, that the young people of any given moment have the opportunity to define themselves as a generation and to make the reality that they want to see.

For instance, the much-vaunted radical activist generation of the 1960s was not that different, statistically, from other cohorts. In 1970, just 9 percent of 18-29s said that they had attended a political meeting, and less than one in four said they followed the news at all. Both statistics (from the American National Election Studies) declined somewhat in the 1980s, and that trend is worth explaining. But my point is that most young people, even at the climax of the youth movements of the 1960s, were not involved in any of that. Also, some young political activists campaigned for Nixon or belonged to Young Americans for Freedom. Nevertheless, left-oriented, anti-establishment young leaders put their stamp on the whole era by claiming a certain generational identity. They didn’t need statistics, because they wanted to shape reality rather than ride the prevailing trends.

I don’t hold them up as a model for you, by the way, because I think their agendas were somewhat problematic and are now obsolete. I am simply arguing that it is possible to form a generational identity regardless of the data. The place to start is with your own ideals and values; your job is to persuade other people to agree.

Couldn’t we say that at any moment? On one hand, yes, we could. I am now in middle age, and I hope to be working with young people in five years and in 25 years in similar ways. I don’t expect them to be fundamentally different from you.

On the other hand, no—every generation is not the same as every other, any more than any individual, or school, or town is the same as all the rest. All cohorts have subtle individuality. Their particular circumstances affect them in unique ways. Our attitude should be one of appreciation, welcoming the new group to public life. And to appreciate people is to pay close attention to their individuality. You don’t have to look for evidence that people born within an arbitrary 20-year window are starkly different from their predecessors. But you can safely assume that they have their own special assets and contributions.

Why think in terms of age at all? If you Millennials are so diverse, and if you are basically in the same boat as us older folks, why should we even want a youth movement? I will offer you three reasons.

First, deliberate youth activism is always necessary because older people monopolize power and influence and do not yield it willingly. To achieve a healthy turnover in public life, the young must open space for themselves.

Second, a beautiful feature of human life is that we are born. We start over afresh. Even though we know that trends and problems will persist, the world is given a new chance with each new cohort. Their entrance is a blessing on the whole house. Another beautiful feature of human life is that the older cohorts don’t just die off as soon as the new ones arrive. We can transmit experience and exchange perspectives over many decades. But that exchange only benefits us older people if you young folks come on strong and proud.

Finally, this is a critically bad time—not so much for the society or the economy as for our political institutions, which lurch from one self-made crisis to another. The Millennials’ stance of independence and pragmatic problem-solving is, I think, more a function of being young than of belonging to their particular generation. My cohort of Gen-Xers felt the same way in 1990. But this is a moment when we especially need the perspective that always accompanies youth: the stance of impatience with political games and stale debates.

I shared my initial skepticism about generational analysis because I sense that you are analytically serious and don’t want to operate on the basis of a myth. But I mean to be the opposite of discouraging. You don’t need statistics to show that you are more tolerant or more active than your predecessors in order to win a place at the table. That place is your birthright.  Nor are you constrained by what the survey data may say about your generation’s opinions. You have your own opinions and you are entitled to express them. We need you to express them. Just let me know if I can help.

Best, Peter

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.