By Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais
Historians will mark 2008 as the year that started the fundamental political debate that will define America in the Millennial Era. This is not just because Millennials (young Americans born from 1982 to 2003) have propelled the candidacy of Barack Obama but also because their entire civic orientation is now permeating the policy debate crystallized by the nation’s unfolding “financial Pearl Harbor”.
Clear indications of a shift can be seen in the adoption of the bipartisan bailout proposal and many cases of agreement across partisan lines on what needs to be done now. Both liberals like former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich and conservatives such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich agree that America should reinvest in its physical infrastructure. They were equally supportive of the need for the country to invest in human capital through a new educational system that would enable America to compete in the global economy. They each acknowledged the necessity for a health care system that would alleviate an ever-increasing financial burden on American families and businesses. From previously and presumably irreconcilably opposite sides of the political spectrum, Reich and Gingrich sketched out an economic growth agenda they could both support.
Their conversation demonstrated one critical new reality: the demise of the ideologically driven Baby Boomer era of American politics. Although a stubborn majority within the Republican House minority implored its party to stick to its Reagan-era idealism by voting against the rescue package even the second time around, most GOP leaders, especially in the Senate, recognized that if their party didn’t change its rigid belief in free markets über alles, then as one put it, “Heaven help us” in November.
Interestingly, October 1929 was the last time the market crashed as dramatically as it did on the day the Republicans first voted down their leadership’s recommendation. That event led to the end of America’s previous idealist era, one that also glorified free markets and attempted to enshrine laissez-faire economics as the end-all of U.S economic policy. What followed was an era of government intervention in the country’s economic well-being and an opportunity-expanding fiscal policy led by the civic generation of its time --- the GI Generation. That generation supported policies that cut the share of the nation’s wealth held by its richest one percent from 50% on the day of the crash to 30% in 1949. Today’s civic generation, Millennials, are equally determined to reduce the level of economic inequality in America, which was approaching pre-depression levels before the market dived and investment houses disappeared from the landscape of Wall Street.
Economic jingoists like Lou Dobbs may celebrate the humbling of the nation’s financial elites, but anger and resentment don’t make good economic policy. Instead, Americans will have to learn to behave like Millennials: finding win-win solutions that work for the whole group. The Millennial generation will create a new paradigm of governmental policy with guidelines for behavior established at the national level, but with implementation left to each individual or local community interacting with others in their peer-to-peer networks to make a choice on how best to comply with those national rules.
This will create a “patient-centered healthcare system” analogous to the Millennial Generation's fondness for user generated content on social networking sites like YouTube. America’s educational system will be refashioned with schools run as much by kids and their parents as it is by administrators. Just as Barack Obama’s acceptance speech called for individuals to make their homes more energy efficient and for executives to do the same with the companies they lead, energy and environmental policy in a Millennial era will be linked through policies that provide tax incentives along with moral persuasion from the bully pulpit of the presidency to ensure America finally ends its dependence on foreign oil. America’s role in the world will be to lead other nations in the way Millennials expect leaders to behave: finding consensus for a course of action that gains its power from the unity of the group, not the raw strength of the biggest kid on the block.
This will require the country to make all types of productive investments. As we enter the Millennial era, America will experience changes as sweeping as any the country witnessed in the 1930s and 40s. If the past is any indication of the future, the Millennial Generation will provide the same level of leadership as America’s greatest generation did nearly eight decades ago. In the process the Millennials will put an end to the Boomer era’s destructive clashes of irreconcilable ideologies.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics published in 2008 by Rutgers University Press