The vast Millennial Generation, born between 1982 and 2003, announced its political arrival last November, when its overwhelming support helped propel Barack Obama into the White House. But that stampede provided just the first hints of how these 90 million-plus young people are likely to transform American culture, society, and politics.
Some advance tremors of that change were evident last weekend when about 100 college students from 70 campuses gathered in Washington for a summit sponsored by the ONE Campaign. That's the nonpartisan organization founded by rock star Bono and other activists to combat poverty and disease worldwide, particularly in Africa. ONE has organized efforts on some 2,400 campuses. The session in Washington, the "Power ONE Hundred Summit," honored the organization's most active students.
Millennials may balance idealism and pragmatism better than either Baby Boomers or Generation X-ers.
Among the students who filled a seminar room for discussions on organizing techniques or international development was a delegation from Curry College, near Boston, that was led by John Abdulla, a senior. Abdulla became interested in global poverty when he heard Bono tout ONE during a U2 concert in 2005. After talking with Sudanese refugees attending his school, Abdulla focused his energy on building a well to provide clean drinking water for a village in Sudan. Through two years of arduous fundraising, he persevered with fellow students to collect $5,000 toward the well's $10,000 cost; then a donor agreed to match their contributions. Now a nonprofit group is scheduled to build the well this spring. "Through all that," Abdulla says, "I never imagined we wouldn't do the well."
Also in the room last weekend was Justin Kralemann, a Baylor University junior. Kralemann's interest in poverty was crystallized when he joined his mother on a business trip to China. Looking through their car's rolled-up windows, he saw an anguished mother holding a malnourished child and felt painfully "isolated" behind the glass. Although his Texas university is considered a conservative campus, Kralemann has enlisted 1,200 supporters for ONE, which pushes for more foreign aid and reform in developing countries. "I feel these issues can be tackled," Kralemann says, gesturing toward the seminar room, "and there are 99 other people in there who agree with me."
Kralemann, Abdulla, and their contemporaries at the summit embody many of the traits that polls suggest will define their generation. They are diverse, tolerant of difference, immersed in communications technology, globally oriented, and optimistic. Maisie Pigeon, a 2008 graduate with a megawatt smile who coordinates ONE's student organizing, describes her typical recruit as "politically engaged, internationally aware, a global citizen."
Generational comparisons can simplify, but early indications are that Millennials may balance idealism and pragmatism better than either Baby Boomers (who have favored the former, at times to self-righteous extremes) or Generation X-ers (who have often had trouble rising above self-interest). Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, fellows at the Democratic advocacy group NDN and co-authors of the perceptive book Millennial Makeover, say that Millennials display the group-oriented values of a "civic generation" like the fabled "GI Generation" that surmounted the Depression and won World War II. Civic generations (a phrase originated by authors William Strauss and Neil Howe) tend to favor "inclusive solutions" that "accomplish results without ... ideological argument," Winograd says.
Such generations are joiners and builders. They would rather light candles than curse darkness. Several of those at the ONE summit echoed Laura Cluff, a senior from Curry, who said that Obama electrified her peers largely because he said he couldn't solve problems alone. "He said, 'You've got to do your part.' When he said that, tears went down my face."
The Millennials' political influence will increase as the share who are old enough to vote rises from about one-third in 2008 to more than half in 2016. But their greatest mark may come in reinvigorating civic life after years of concern that the U.S. had atomized into a nation "bowling alone." The ONE summit students were by definition unusually committed, but remarkable numbers of young people already participate in community service. And Obama's call will inevitably summon yet more.
This generation, like all others, will have its failures and blind spots. It is emerging at a grim moment. But it is arriving with an invigorating ethic of responsibility and a refreshingly practical bent. The well soon to be dug in Sudan is a monument to those impulses. It won't be the last.
This article appears in the February 14, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.