As the country’s political distemper grows, many commentators, reflecting their own generational biases, mistakenly assume that voters are looking for less government as the solution to the nation’s ills. But survey research data from Washington think tank, NDN, shows that a majority of Americans (54%), and particularly the country’s youngest generation, Millennials, born 1982-2003, (58%), actually favor a more active government, rather than one that “stays out of society and the economy.”
“Dissatisfaction with Obama and the Democratic Congress,” generational expert Neil Howe has observed, “is probably more fed by their failure to use government boldly and vigorously to face hard challenges than by their excessive boldness.”.
What Millennials are looking for in terms of public policy, to borrow John Cleese’s warning to his Monty Python audience, is something completely different. They are not buying into the tired approaches of either party that have produced the current partisan gridlock in Washington.
Millennials are not interested in letting ideological posturing stand in the way of “getting stuff done,” as they like to say. Their generation’s idealism – in sharp contrast to the more ideological approach adopted by Boomers – is characterized by a pragmatic impulse focused on finding practical solutions to problems. Much like the civic generations – most notably the World War II era “greatest generation” – before them, Millennials want to reinvigorate the nation’s institutions utilizing government to improve basic conditions in areas as diverse as health care, education and environmental protection.
However, unlike America’s last civic generation, the GI Generation (born 1901-1924), Millennials do not want to place responsibility for achieving their desired results in a remote, opaque bureaucracy. After all, Millennials were not shaped either by the New Deal era or the Second World War, when government expanded to deal with economic and international concerns that threatened the very existence of American democracy. . Instead they tend to see government’s role more like that of their parents who set the rules but left room for negotiation on what the rewards would be for abiding by the rules as well as the consequences for not doing so. In this Millennialist approach, government provides information and resources to help individuals connect and learn from each other but let’s each person decide how best to discharge their civic obligations.
The healthcare reform legislation that was forged out of the white heat of the political debate in Congress came surprisingly close to this model. It disappointed ideological Boomers on both sides of the aisle. Liberals didn’t get their dream of a single payer system or even its “nose-under-the-tent” counterpart, the so-called public option. But conservatives were unable, even after Republican Scott Brown’s surprise election as a United States Senator from deep blue Massachusetts, to prevent Congress from mandating that every person in America buy health insurance in order to achieve the goal of universal access. By building a framework for universal coverage on the scaffolding of the existing private insurance system, the final legislative solution used the liberal approach of regulation and national mandates to create a new role for government, but kept government out of the business of actually providing health care.
The final shape of that reform reflects a new Millennialist approach to the making and implementation of public policy. This approach will result in setting new national standards in many aspects of our national life while, at the same time, allowing individuals to make their own choices about how to comply with those standards.
The recent adoption by a majority of states of national curriculum standards for what students must learn in core disciplines such as English, math and science is further evidence of this trend. These standards, developed and coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, outlines “the knowledge and skills students should have within their K-12 education careers,” without dictating how schools should teach the material.
Meanwhile the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” grant program, has sparked a firestorm of educational reform legislation in states competing for the money that weaken the hold of administrators and teachers’ unions on what goes on in the classroom. The demands of the parents of Millennials for bottom line results, reflected in such grass roots initiatives as the Parent Revolution in California and Connecticut, is providing the political support needed to take on the current educational monopoly. This will help open the door to widespread experimentation about what works best at the local school level.
As of yet, there is no sign at the national level that a more Millennialist approach to addressing concerns over global warming and environmental degradation has been achieved. But the failure of Congress to pass more bureaucratic approaches, such as cap-and-trade, suggest there is an opportunity for such ideas to take hold in the future. For instance, a campaign to reduce the carbon intensive nature of the nation’s infrastructure could include a government sponsored effort to display the carbon footprint of most consumer products. This would allow individuals decide how to alter their personal purchasing decisions to produce the most environmentally favorable results.
Similarly, the goal of reducing fuel consumption per family could be achieved by providing tax incentives for telecommuting or for trading in aging gas guzzlers for vehicles that exceed the newly strengthened fuel economy standards for passenger cars. These policies, and others like them, would leave it up to each individual to decide the extent to which they wish to contribute to environmental improvement. Just as anti- smoking campaigns financed by taxes on cigarettes has been found to be an effective deterrent to smoking , the strategy would be to “nudge” rather than command behavior in order to achieve the desired policy goal. Given the strong environmental sensitivity of the younger generation, this approach will likely accomplish more in terms of actual carbon usage reduction than the ideologically-driven schemes proposed by Boomers in Congress.
The trajectory of public policy in a Millennial Era is becoming increasingly evident. The push for an increasing number of national standards and preferred behavior will cause libertarians to decry the evolving “nanny state” and argue strenuously against an increasingly intrusive government. But liberals, too, may be upset by approaches that eschew “top down” bureaucratic solutions and focus on using government to improve society without new administrative burden.
In the future the public, led by Millennials, will be the one forging sustainable solutions. National consensus, coupled with localism and individual choice, will become the watchwords of the nation’s newest civic era.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.
Photo by Vincent J. Brown