For several months, the dominant national rhetoric surrounding up-and-coming youth in the U.S. was one of disappointment, focusing on a storyline of Millennials as self absorbed, attention deficit, and oblivious to global issues of international and domestic importance. After Time magazine’s cover story generalizing “The Me, Me, Me Generation”, thousands of quietly organizing Millennials found opportunity to further propel their mission to bring about a change in the very foundation of traditional “political gridlock and inaction” to the forefront of academic and political discussion, quite rapidly turning the discourse on its head. Their retorts found support in spheres archetypal of older generations, mainly polling bodies and research institutions with agendas progressive enough to ask the Millennials face to face about their values and plans to “change the way we see the world” at home and abroad.
Pew Charitable Trusts, the Brookings Institution, Zogby Analytics, and the Roosevelt Institute are a few such organizations, each in the years since 2008 producing their own survey analyses of Millennial attitudes towards foreign policy and national identity; each championing integration and understanding of their generational lurch toward change. Aside from subtle differences in polling practices and analytical techniques, the majority of such recent surveys find a Millennial generation with distinctly opposing values and world-views to those held by the generations who came before them, categorized helpfully by analyst John Zogby as “Privates” born between 1926 and 1954, “Woodstockers” born between 1945 and 1964, “Nikes” born between 1965 and 1978, and Millennials—otherwise known as “First Globals”—born between 1979 and 1993.
The intergenerational value distinctions rest in three main spheres: a decline of a view of American exceptionalism; a noncompliance with traditional acceptance of bureaucratic gridlock; and a global empathy which calls for reconstructed ideals of citizenship and policy-making that transcends purely national interests. The Millennial generation may at times seem absent from headline political conversations or engagement in traditional institutions of civil society, but it is often because they are developing their own versions of these outdated mechanisms for “action”. Whereas much of the publicized discourse is determined by almost impenetrable political power structures, Millennials have chosen an external path, organizing horizontally with grassroots organizations and true community leaders as well as like-minded small businesses and NGOs to reimagine a global community through national infrastructures that actually function as they are designed to.
The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network and their program Think2040 held working groups and engaged in person-to-person and online conversations with 1000 Millennial participants from diverse college campuses across the country, gathering data representing their values and goals in a reportGovernment By and For Millennial America as well as a Blueprint for Millennial America outlining the “policy structures and reforms necessary to realize the Millennial vision for America in 2040."
The projects make clear that this “Millennial vision” does not necessitate a conservative or liberal label, but a collective redefinition of age-old issues and the discourse surrounding them in a concerted commitment to break through the stagnancy of our current global situation. Actors leading the Campus Network initiatives started from “an insight into how ‘government’ is viewed in our time: a monolithic entity, detached from daily life, inaccessible, inefficient, and beyond saving,” using community discussion and planning to construct a Millennial response plan to address the widening gap between those who believe in our government systems and conduct transnational policies, and those who experience the disparate effects of these institutions and policies in daily life. The “initiative aims to...examine the purpose of our democracy in a period of constant and rapid change...for government that goes beyond big or small toward better.”
The Roosevelt Institute’s study focuses mainly on Millennial visions of a government that truly embodies service to the people, but this national interest also translates into opportunities for Millennial value change in international relations, facilitating a shift away from traditional isolation of societal interests under the veneer of national borders. The survey data that Zogby presents in his new book First Globals: Understanding, Managing, and Unleashing Our Millennial Generation show that Millennials shy away from traditionally exaggerated ideas of America as a superpower, have an opposition to war that extends more deeply than simplified explanations of a “liberal youth”, and a self-conception of “global citizenry” rather than a dominant affiliation to the United States.
Zogby’s “First Globals” are, according to him, “more likely to call themselves citizens of planet earth” than of the U.S., a change due in large part to our modern ability to observe life across the globe in real-time. Thanks to burgeoning channels of technology for sharing information and stories, Millennials are undercutting traditional national discourses to foster communication about everyday experiences—uninhibited by time zone and fueled by “the need to be involved with something much larger than themselves.” Of those “First Globals” surveyed in the book’s flagship poll, 71 percent say that it is important to them to do something to better the world. They have a “limited tolerance for slow churning approaches to resolving problems” characteristic not only of national institutions but also of those responsible for conducting foreign policy; Millennials instead are choosing non-traditional paths of crowd-sourcing and community-building to look clearly at issues resonating throughout global society and to construct meaningful strategic plans to address them, with or without bureaucracy.
In 2013 we know that the problems which face our global society are not new, but have replicated themselves throughout history and across borders, only glimpsing plausible solutions when we integrate spheres of government, civil society, community leaders, and germane repositories of data to avoid the institutional flaws that so continuously hinder our progress. Millennials know these issues far too well—they have been tempted to lose hope over them, to completely disregard the system and work alone. Instead they have taken hold of the gifts of experience from generations before to rebuild confidence in a global society that believes in mutual wellbeing and national institutions, which are held to the standards that produce results, not idleness.