As the mother of a millennial, I believe in you. I bristled and wrote an angry response on social media recently when some of my friends who supervise millennials posted complaints about what they perceive as your need for praise, your unwillingness to pay your dues in the workplace, and your superficiality about the issues that face us.
The Washington Post published an article in December entitled “Everyone hates millennials. That’s very bad news for student protesters.” The writer refutes the perception that today’s young adults are “spoiled slackers,” but she concludes that “until we change the narrative of coddled-millennial-cum-entitled-activist, it’s unlikely that any serious thought will be given” to issues that concern protesters.
But that was before the Iowa caucuses on Monday. By Tuesday morning, both the media and the establishment were paying attention. Bernie Sanders won a whopping 84% of the under-30 vote, creating a frenzy of media coverage on college campuses and near-hysteria among Hillary Clinton’s supporters.
Now the country is listening. The force of your generation may determine who wins the nomination and the election, much as you did in 2004, when those of you who were just turning 18 helped sweep Barack Obama into office.
But then what?
If you truly want to have a lasting impact on the course of our nation, you can’t just disengage until the next presidential election in 2020. If we’ve learned anything from Barack Obama’s presidency, it’s that even the most charismatic messenger of hope on the campaign trail cannot be the change we seek without the enthusiastic citizens who swept him into office.
A president needs a Congress that also believes in hope and change—a chamber full of leaders who are passionate about working together to bring out the best in all of us. If you would start a revolution, you must carry the force of your fervor into every state in the Union and insist with your influence and your votes that the president you elect will have representatives in every state who are willing to work together. And you are probably the only generation that can look beyond party loyalty to find those candidates within and outside both parties.
No generation before you has been able to do this. It is a daunting task that requires attention and devotion, every day and not just every four years.
What people say about your generation sounds hauntingly familiar to me. When I was in high school, my father called the students who protested on college campuses “goddam long-haired, communist hippie freaks.” His generation felt that we baby boomers were at the heart of what was wrong with the world, perceiving us as lazy bums who wanted to smoke pot in a purple haze and avoid getting a decent job as long as we could.
The narrative then was much the same as the narrative now. We, too, were disillusioned with our leaders. And after Richard Nixon’s resignation, we grew distrustful of politicians. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became the mantra of our generation.
We disengaged. With the exception of Bobby Kennedy in 1968, no presidential candidate of my lifetime generated the kind of energy Barack Obama inspired. Many of my contemporaries didn’t even vote in presidential elections. And even those who did disengaged between elections, much as you did after 2004.
Every single person who voted for Barack Obama and then returned to their own lives, leaving him to carry the torch with a few devoted disciples, bears responsibility for his failure to live up to our expectations for hope and change.
I envy you your certainty that Bernie Sanders is the prophet who can lead us out of the wilderness. I believe that you may have the power to elect him. But of one thing I am sure: Electing any president to office is not enough. You can’t just be boisterous and loud at election time—when you’ll have a few weeks of fame in the mainstream media. You must take every opportunity to work for social justice, to engage in civic dialogue, to use your voice to demand honesty and ethics and generosity from yourselves and your leaders. You must make your voice heard in midterm elections as well. You must generate the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm you displayed in Iowa every time the voting machines are rolled out.
If you don’t, you will repeat the mistake of every previous generation of my lifetime, and nothing will change. And no one disputes the fact that we need change.
Every great revolution in our nation’s history—from gaining independence to ending slavery to ensuring equal rights—has come only when citizens have banded together and committed themselves for the long-haul to what is just and right.
Will you have the commitment that my generation has not?