(Please welcome Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, authors of Millennial Makeover, in the comments — jh)
2008, everyone says now with a knowing nod, is a "change election." If this interminable primary season has shown us anything, it’s that people want something radically different than politics-as-usual — or, as some of us are starting to realize, even politics-as-we’ve-known-it-since-Nixon. It’s hard to ignore now that there’s a quantum shift occurring in our national priorities, our tolerance for unproductive confrontation, and our faith in government’s capacity to solve problems. And some of us even feel the cool, bracing stirrings of a tentative but rising hope that things that seemed impossible in the past might soon be within our reach at last.
This deep shift in mood has caught a lot of people by surprise (not least the Clinton campaign, which seemed determined to party like it’s 1999.) But there were a few people who saw this coming a long way back, because this very shift was predicted long ago by William Strauss and Neil Howe’s saecular theory of history, which was first brought to public attention in the 1991 book Generations, and in nearly a dozen books since.
Strauss and Howe postulated that American history turns in a four-phase cycle of awakening, unraveling, crisis, and resolution that repeats every 80 years; and that this cycle is driven by the character of four repeating generational types that are both created by the cycle, and create it in turn. Their thesis foreshadowed 9/11 (which they predicted in striking detail in 1997’s The Fourth Turning). It also suggested that somewhere between 2005 and 2010, there would be a dramatic — and probably progressive — political realignment not unlike the one in 1932, which restored faith in government, ignited a new generation of young voters, and brought the country together to rebuild the nation and revitalize its civic life.
Today’s guests, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, are media and marketing experts who’ve worked with saecular theory throughout their careers to predict shifting trends. Their book, Millennial Makeover, applies saecular theory to the 2008 election and what lies beyond, looking closely at the way the rising Millennial generation is changing our politics, and will likely transform the country in the decades ahead. Here’s a summary of their thesis, from a WaPo op-ed they wrote in February:
Today’s millennials look a lot like the GI generation, born between 1901 and 1924, which FDR described as having "a rendezvous with destiny" — a phrase Ted Kennedy echoed last week in his endorsement of Obama. In 1930, the GI generation was nearly twice as large as the two previous generations combined. Today’s millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history — twice as large as Generation X and numbering a million more than the baby boomers. Though nearly 90 percent of the GI generation was white, it was diverse for its time. Many members were immigrants or the children of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. About 40 percent of millennials are of African American, Latino, Asian or racially mixed backgrounds. Twenty percent have at least one immigrant parent.
Civic generations are committed to political involvement and believe in using and strengthening political and government institutions. In the 1930s, young members of the GI generation regularly voted in greater numbers than older generations. Similarly, millennials have led this year’s surge in voter participation, especially in Democratic contests.
In the New Hampshire Democratic primary, turnout was up by more than 50 percent over 2000 among voters under 30, while among older voters it rose by only a bit more than 10 percent. According to one research firm that tracks millennials’ civic engagement, voters 25 and under accounted for 18 percent of all Democratic voters in New Hampshire this year. In 2000, the same age group (which then consisted mostly of the disaffected Generation X) made up only 13 percent of the New Hampshire Democratic primary vote. In Iowa, according to CNN, the differences were even more dramatic: twenty percent of Democratic caucus participants were young voters, four times the number in 2004. Similarly unprecedented levels of voter participation in this year’s Democratic elections in Nevada, South Carolina and even Florida’s "beauty contest" primary have been driven by the enthusiasm of millennial voters.
Millennials’ political style is also similar to the GI generation’s. They aren’t confrontational or combative, the way boomers (whose generational mantra was "Don’t trust anyone over 30") have been. Nor does the millennials’ rhetoric reflect the cynicism and alienation of Generation X, whose philosophy is, "Life sucks, and then you die." Instead, their political style reflects their generation’s constant interaction with hundreds, if not thousands, of "friends" on MySpace or Facebook, about any and all subjects, increasingly including politics. Since they started watching "Barney" as toddlers, the millennials have learned to be concerned for the welfare of everyone in the group and to try to find consensus, "win-win" solutions to any problem. The result is a collegial approach that attracts millennials to candidates who seek to unify the country and heal the nation’s divisions.
Unlike the young baby boomers, millennials want to strengthen the political system, not tear it down. According to a study last year by the Pew Research Center, most millennials (64 percent) disagree that the federal government is wasteful and inefficient, while most older Americans (58 percent) think it is. A 2006 survey by Frank N. Magid Associates indicated that millennials are more likely than older generations to believe that politicians care what people think and are more concerned with the good of the country than of their political party.
It also showed that millennials, more than their elders, believe that U.S. political institutions will deal effectively with concerns the nation will face in the future.
Given the public’s disapproval of both Congress and President Bush, we’re going to need all the optimism and change we can generate to overcome those challenges. Luckily, the millennial generation, like its GI generation forebears, is arriving right on time to deliver just what America needs.
Millennials are naturally progressive in many ways, write Winograd and Hais — but that doesn’t mean that the Democrats don’t have plenty of chances to alienate them, especially if Boomers don’t handle the generational transfer of power gracefully over the next few years. Since 2008 will likely be the election in which these new voters forge the party allegiances that they’ll follow for the rest of their lives, it’s absolutely critical that Boomer and Gen X leaders understand this new cohort of voters. America’s progressive future may well depend on our willingness to move over and make room for their far more expansive and hopeful view of the world, and allow it to re-shape our sense of what’s politically possible. It’s not an overstatement to say that what’s happening now in this election is going to shape the political beliefs of a generation, and set the country’s course for the next 40+ years.
Jerome Armstrong at MyDD said that < Millennial Makeover is the best book on elections he’s read since The Emerging Democratic Majority. Frank Rich thought it explained quite a bit about why Obama’s winning in places nobody thought he could. As a long-time fan of Strauss & Howe’s model of social change, I welcome this as thoroughly researched documentation of long-predicted trends playing out in real time — and reason to look ahead to the future with considerable optimism.
Coming to us live from Southern California, let’s give Morley and Mike a big FDL welcome.