By Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais
Senator Barack Obama’s success in the 2008 presidential campaign marks more than an historical turning point in American politics. It also signals the beginning of a new era for American society, one dominated by the attitudes and behaviors of the largest generation in American history.
Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, now comprise almost one-third of the U.S. population and without their overwhelming support for his candidacy, Barack Obama would not have been able to win his party’s nomination, let alone been elected President of the United States. This new, “civic” generation is dramatically different than the boomers who have dominated our society since the 1960s and understanding this shift is critical to comprehending the changes that America will experience over the next forty years.
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 preference for consensus for everything from minor decisions, like where to hang out, and major decisions, such as whether go to war, stems from a belief that every one impacted by a decision needs, at very least, to be consulted about it. This approach will dominate how leaders of America’s primary institutions – from corporations and churches to government at all levels – will be measured in the years ahead.
Contrast that approach to those of the candidates who struggled in 2008. In her losing run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton presented case for a highly assertive, controversial – if sometimes a bit too strenuous – Boomer style of leadership. She emphasized the value of her years of experience and wisdom. Senator John McCain tried that approach as well during the summer lull, but found it didn’t have sufficient power to overtake Obama in the national polls. He then rolled the dice and asked a Generation-X Governor, Sarah Palin, to help him win voters by emphasizing their mutual belief in the superiority of traditional social values and small government. The Republican ticket has had about as much success with this strategy as Governors Huckabee and Romney did Millennial voters during the primaries.
To successfully manage the transition to a Millennial era, institutions will need to find leaders of any age far-sighted enough to fully embrace Millennial attitudes and behaviors. They have to give them full reign to makeover the outdated structures they will inherit.
Millennials, in particular, are ready to take on the challenge. Millennials were taught that if you follow the rules and work hard, you will succeed. As the first generation to experience “always on,” high-speed access to the Internet at a young age, Millennials have confounded the vision of many Gen X futurists who envisioned the Net as a tool to enhance individual freedom and liberty, not as a new resource for community building. Sharing their ideas and thoughts constantly from short Twitter texts, or “Tweets,” to extended, if often amateurish, videos on YouTube, Millennials generate and absorb an overwhelming amount of information. Individual Millennials use this ability to influence their own decisions, and then those of the wider group. If institutions and their leaders want their decisions to have any credibility with this new generation, every institution will need to open its own governance procedures to ensure a level of transparency and fairness that meets the test of Millennial values.
There have been other times in American history when a “civic” generation like the Millennials has emerged to transform the nation. In the eighteenth century a “civic” generation, called the “Republican Generation” by the seminal generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe, created the constitutional republic whose democratic values we celebrate to this day. About eighty years later, an equally “civic” impulse propelled to the war to abolish slavery and extend liberty and freedom to all citizens. And when the last “civic” generation was called upon by its elders to conquer fascism and remake America’s economy in the twentieth century, the GI Generation responded with such fervor and ability that they were labeled the “Greatest Generation” by a grateful nation.
Now, another eighty years later, it is the Millennial Generation’s turn. Its “civic” revolution draws its unique character from the particular way Millennials were brought up, and their use of interactive communication technologies. We believe the Millennial Generation's revolution will be just as profound as that of previous “civic” generations. Barack Obama’s victory does indeed mark the end of the late 20th century “idealist” era of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But its significance is much deeper, and likely to shape the nature of the new era the country is about to enter.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics Winograd and Hais are fellows at NDN and the New Policy Institute.