Millennials —yes, they can

There has always been a generation gap. When I told my father that Elvis Pressley would someday be bigger than Frank Sinatra, he laughed at me. When the “Millennial Generation” — born between 1977 and 1998 — were first touted as “Obama’s Army,” most political experts opined that those people didn’t vote and wouldn’t stay involved and it was a waste of time to focus resources on them. They made good TV images at rallies, was the general consensus, but for most of them — especially the younger ones — that would be the end of their involvement.

Well, that turned out not to be true. Millennials are unique, unlike their parents or grandparents. Some recent research by an interesting group called the Learning Café suggests just how different they are. To start with, they are the children of baby boomers and early Gen-Xers. (Some of these dividing lines seem pretty arbitrary to me, but sociologists claim they are based on spikes and declines in the birthrate and thus are defensible as groups that have a different set of shared experiences.)

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Millennials were raised at the most child-centric time in American history, according to the experts. Their parents had high expectations for them, showered them with attention and consistently rewarded them for doing well. They are technologically proficient, never having known a world without video games, computers, cell phones and now every kind of PDA imaginable. They are confident — believing their parents were right when they told their children they could do anything. They are optimistic, community-oriented, team players and results-oriented — although they do not respond well to top-down authority. They have a stronger sense of entitlement than previous generations. They want to change the world and think they can do it. (I’ll come back to this point, as it may be critical in the 2010 elections.)

Everyone knows that this is the most tech-savvy generation ever. The numbers tell the story: Ninety-four percent have cell phones. Eighty-seven percent belong to an online community or social network. Seventy-six percent use instant messaging. Seventy-five percent have a Facebook account. In our issue advocacy work we’ve learned to live in their universe. We often build coalitions for our clients, and Millennials are willing to join. Their sense of community almost compels them to if you can speak to them in language they understand. These digital natives want their messages short and interesting. They want something to do and a reward for doing it. They have short attention spans and need to be reached out to frequently. If you follow those rules, you can recruit a hundred thousand of them online who will actually do something — take some action because it is in their nature to do so. Then you and your cause are out of mind until you connect with them with an interesting or fun project again.

They have not generally gotten involved with candidates or issues because “Millennials perceive politics as a polarized debate with no options for compromise or nuance,” in the words of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. They don’t want to be limited by political party affiliation. They care about issues important to their “community” and will work with anyone who can get something done.

But they are impatient. That is why so many seemed to drift away from President Barack Obama as the healthcare debate dragged on and partisanship in Washington got out of hand. For nearly a year and a half their parents’ and grandparents’ generations argued over what — to many — seemed like petty details. They tuned out not because they didn’t care but because they were bored.

Now that there actually is a healthcare bill, it will be fascinating to see if they are willing to re-engage. The Obama campaign showed how to communicate with and motivate this generation in 2008. Re-engaging them will be crucial to the president’s reelection and, arguably, to Democrats’ congressional future. There are 44 million Millennials eligible to vote, which is about 20 percent of the electorate. Most of them are independents — at least in their voting patterns. Recent polls show independents drifting away from the Republican Party as a result of the angry debate in Washington. The Millennials could lead that bloc of voters back into the Obama/Democrat fold if the president can show that together, they are making a difference. Millennials make up a big community confident in their ability to make change and willing to get involved if the president and congressional Democrats send them the right pithy message: Yes, we did.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com