Millenials – The Sleeping Giant is Waking Up

posted on January 18, 2012 in Leadership

According to the United Nations Populations Fund, 43% of the global population is comprised of young people ages 10 – 24; 60% live in developing countries. Yet, it seems as if those numbers matter little. Governments in the Arab world – largely dominated by aging political elites - have shown they are all too willing to ignore, intimidate, or suppress the power of the growing youth population. The inflexibility and lack of willingness on behalf of Arab governments to engage their youth and address issues such as rampant unemployment, lack of social mobility and political oppression is resulting in an inexorable toppling of autocratic regimes throughout the Arab world.

Many thousands of miles away, here in the United States, it is difficult to empathize with the plight of a group of people with such divergent histories, as well as political and social realities – or is it? If you live in a major metropolis, chances are there is a group of rag tag protestors living in tents and talking about the “99%” in a park just down the street. Unlike many countries in the Arab world, our political system fortunately allows for public demonstrations of political and social opposition to the status quo; however, that is where the differences stop. What are those rag tag protestors talking about? Rampant unemployment, particularly for youth – check.  Lack of social mobility – the economic and social stratification of our society is now greater than at any point in our history – check. Finally, political oppression – yes, public protests are allowed and freedom of expression is one of our most cherished beliefs, but look more closely and what do you see? Legislative policy on issues most directly affecting youth such as education reform, have received scant attention and what legislation has been put into place has been largely ineffectual and in some cases counterproductive. In comparison to seniors, it seems youth don’t have the monetary or electoral clout necessary to influence policy direction.

Political elites in this country are following a dangerously similar path to autocratic leaders in the Arab world – choosing to ignore the reality that an entire generation may not have a life as prosperous as that of their parents.  The media has not helped the situation. Numerous opinion editorials in the New York Times and in other publications have demonized the millennial generation and youth more broadly as the products of “helicopter” parents and over-privileged upbringings.  This commentary is difficult to understand considering the fact that 1/5 of all children in the United States now live in poverty and will likely see an even further erosion of their standard of living as adults. Talking more colloquially with friends and colleagues, the general impression of millenials is that they’re lazy and unwilling to put in the time and effort their parents did to get ahead. Considering the fact that I work a full-time job, three part-time jobs and volunteer as the Director of Projects, Development for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, I also find this difficult to understand.

Continued ignorance by the political elites, and further demonization of youth by the media is having many harmful effects on the youngest members of society, with potentially disastrous outcomes for the country. Washington has thus far failed to constructively engage youth and to generate policies which invest in their future. As baby boomers retire, we need young, educated and passionate believers in the future of this country to be its stewards. We cannot assume that by ignoring the problems facing youth today and denying Millenials the opportunity to succeed that we will somehow muddle through. Look to the Arab world – that approach isn’t working so well.