By Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais
The formal ratification of the outcome of the primary elections at the party’s national conventions marks more than just the beginning of a new era in American politics. It signals the demise of Boomer generation attitudes and beliefs as the dominant motif in American life.
After 16 years of Baby Boomer presidents, first Bill Clinton and then George W. Bush, primary voters in both parties rejected quintessential Boomer ideologues (Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee) in favor of candidates who were explicitly opposed to Boomer-style politics. Although Barack Obama is chronologically a very young Boomer, he signaled, in a March 2007 Selma, Alabama speech, his desire to break with the divisive politics of an earlier, “Moses” generation. Instead he embraced the beliefs of this century’s “Joshua” generation, Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003. For his part, John McCain is a member of the older Silent Generation, born between 1925 and 1945 and has constantly exhibited that generation’s style, positioning himself as a political maverick who attempts to bridge ideological gaps to achieve larger goals.
But the big break is with the Boomer generation. Unlike Boomers, Millennials have been raised to play nice with each other and find win-win solutions to any problem. Boomer (and Generation X) parents sat toddler Millennials in front of the television set to watch “Barney” and absorb each episode’s lesson of self-esteem and mutual respect (even as they bolted from the room, sick from the sweetness of it all). With the show’s “my friend is your friend and your friend is my friend” lyrics hard wired into their psyche, Millennials have a strong desire to share everything they do with everyone else.
The arrival of social network technologies enabled Millennials to create the most intense, group-oriented decision-making process of any generation in American history. This generation’s need to make sure the outcome of both minor decisions, like where to hang out, and major decisions, such as whether go to war, reflects both a penchant for consensus and team work which will become the future benchmarks for American political life.
In contrast Senator Clinton made a definitive—if sometimes a bit too strenuous—case for a Boomer style of leadership in her primary campaign, emphasizing the value of her experience and wisdom. Governors Huckabee and Romney’s approach, for their part, stridently insisted upon the need to preserve the superior set of traditional values .
Now it’s time to encourage the Boomers to take their well-deserved retirement, and offer the opportunity for newer, Gen X leaders and their values. This may be difficult for many Xers, who will need to overcome their own lack of understanding of, and in some cases outright disdain for, the youngest generation. Humorists Steven Colbert and John Stewart, both quintessential Gen Xers, recently demonstrated their risk-taking mindset by mocking Millennial attitudes as demonstrated by Senator Obama’s rock star reception in Berlin. The failure of their Millennial audience to laugh at the joke, or buy into Senator McCain’s attempt to suggest it somehow made Obama less qualified to be President, demonstrates the challenge the Millennial zeitgeist will pose for those seeking to become the nation’s leaders.
The change from Boomer to Millennial style is already becoming evident in other areas of American life as well. At the 1968 Olympics, as the Boomer inspired, idealist era began, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists in the men's 200-meter race, raised a black-gloved fist in a protest for black power as the Star Spangled Banner was played to celebrate their victories. Forty years later, Jason Lezak, captured the values of the new Millennial era as he explained how he was able to swim the fastest 400-meter freestyle leg in history to bring gold to his teammates. “It’s the Olympics and I’m here for the USA . . . .I got a supercharge and took it from there. It was unreal.” Lezak was joined at the award ceremony by his Millennial teammate, Cullen Jones, only the second African-American to ever win a gold medal in swimming. In sharp contrast to Smith and Carlos forty years earlier, Jones happily celebrated the victory of his team and country.
Ultimately the 2008 election will turn on which candidate can bring these new attitudes and beliefs to bear on the number one issue facing the country—the economy. Unlike Boomers, whose focus was on economic growth to support their workaholic personalities, Millennials are more concerned about economic inequality and believe government has a key role to play in bringing about a greater degree of economic fairness. Almost 70 percent of Millennials express a preference for “a bigger government that provides more services,” compared to only 43 percent of older generations who agreed with that statement.
Connecting the current sorry state of the American economy and its dependence on foreign oil with the other favorite concern of Millennials, global warming, is an even better way to win this generation’s support on economic issues. Whoever is elected this year will need to reshape America’s economy in line with Millennial expectations of inclusiveness and fairness as dramatically as FDR’s New Deal created a new economic framework for the Millennial’s generational forbearers, the GI Generation.
The Broadway musical, “Bye Bye Birdie,” captured the end of the conventional era of the ‘50s, as the onslaught of Rock n’ Roll pitted child against parent and ushered in an age that celebrated rebellion in all its forms. The confrontations between Boomer “Meathead” (Michael Stivic) on “All in the Family,” with his tradition bound father-in-law, Archie Bunker, captured his generation's desire to overturn the establishment using the power of ideas to persuade the recalcitrant of the error of their ways.
Now it’s time to realize new values are ascending. Millennials generally get along great with their parents and celebrate the wholesome values of “High School Musical,” where boys and girls of all types come together to defeat those that seek to win only for their own personal ambition. Those nominated in the next two weeks at their party’s convention should heed this lesson. To gain the presidency, the winning ticket will have to appeal to the Millennial sense of pride and teamwork in meeting the challenges the country faces.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics published by Rutgers University Press.