The gap between the support Millennials have for the beliefs of the protest movement and their less than enthusiastic backing of it, suggests both the opportunity for success Occupy still has and the danger to the movement if it fails to focus its strategy on attracting Millennials to its cause.
With municipal authorities disrupting and dismantling the Occupy movement’s encampments in cities across the country, many are questioning if the movement can survive without its most visible symbol of sustainability. Now that its physical presence is under siege, the need for the movement to attract more members of the Millennial generation – and align itself with its beliefs and behaviors – becomes even more critical. Demographic figures show that any social movement or trend endorsed by America’s youngest and most populous generation – the Millennial generation (born 1982-2003) – is likely to shape or even dominate American life in the decades ahead, while any rejected by it is likely to fall by the wayside.
While the Occupy movement has had some success in appealing to Millennials, it still has more to do before it is fully embraced by the generation, as suggested by the results of a national survey conducted this month by the consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates.
Gaining widespread Millennial endorsement wouldn’t just represent a PR victory by the Occupy movement. By 2012, when more than 60 percent of this 95-million-strong generation will be 18 or older, almost 1 in 4 American adults will be a Millennial. By the end of this decade, when virtually all Millennials will have come of age, the generation will comprise more than one-third (36 percent) of US adults. Millennial approval and participation is vital to the Occupy movement’s survival going forward.
Demographically, the movement has significant Millennial representation, but it does not appear to be predominantly comprised of Millennials. A survey conducted by Fordham University professor Costas Panagopoulos indicated that the mean age of adult protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park was 33. Since the oldest Millennial is just 29, it is obvious that a fair number of those in the park were members of older generations.
Demonstrations on or near college campuses almost certainly contain larger contingents of Millennials than those elsewhere. Still it is evident that older generations are playing a key role in the Occupy movement, particularly the anarchists and professional left wing agitators who initially energized the protests.
Attitudinally, large majorities of Millennials do concur with the Occupy movement’s view of present day America.
Eight in ten adult Millennials agree that the gap between the rich and the middle class is larger than ever. About three-quarters of Millennials say that big business and Wall Street have too much power, that taxes should be increased on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans (75 percent), and that Wall Street and the financial industry should be punished for their role in the economic recession (71 percent). Two-thirds of the generation favor increased regulation of banks and the financial industry.
Millennials also have a somewhat better assessment of the Occupy movement itself than do older generations. The strongest Millennial perception of the movement is that it is “liberal” (38 percent), not a negative term within the only generation in which liberals and progressives outnumber conservatives and moderates.
By contrast, the strongest perceptions held of the Occupy movement by Baby Boomers and senior citizen Silents is that the movement is “anti-establishment” (39 percent), “radical” (30 percent), and even “revolutionary” (25 percent).
Overall, the Millennial generation is evenly divided about the movement, with a quarter still uncertain. Even so, Millennials are more positive about Occupy than older generations, among whom 34 percent hold favorable opinions and 44 percent negative.
But despite their sympathy with the movement, Millennials are not yet ready to fully endorse the Occupy movement. This gap between the support Millennials have for the beliefs of the protest movement and their less than enthusiastic backing of it, suggests both the opportunity for success Occupy still has and the danger to the movement if it fails to focus its strategy on attracting Millennials to its cause.
One problem, according to observers ranging from newspapers to high school and college students and even to the “belly of the beast,” Wall Street itself, is that the Occupy movement lacks strong leaders who can guide and personalize it. A large majority of the public at large and Millennials in particular (67 percent each) agrees with this assessment.
Most of the major social movements of the 20th century had charismatic leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.(civil rights) and Gloria Steinem (women’s liberation), who played this key role. But in the social network-driven 21st century, movements appear, by design, to be “leaderless,” and lacking in clear structure. They are horizontal rather than vertical.
A far more important concern is that about 7 in 10 Millennials cannot figure out just what the Occupy movement is and what its goals really are. In only a few scattered locations, such as college campuses in California where there was a call for tuition relief, did Occupy protestors cite definite actionable objectives or make specific demands. In contrast to the tea party’s clear and consistent opposition to tax increases or “big government” programs like “Obamacare,” the goals of the Occupy movement often seem unvoiced and inchoate.
Unlike the ideologically driven Boomer Generation, which was content to use teach-ins and other talk-a-thon strategies to endlessly discuss, if not actually advance, its causes, Millennials bring a strong dose of pragmatism to their desire to change the world and would be more likely to participate in Occupy activities if they were more action-oriented.
In the end, if the Occupy movement is to become Millennial and really effect change, it must do more than simply inspire sympathy and sentiment. It must move beyond being a protest movement and become a political movement, one with specific goals that engages and alters the political process. Only by using these and other tactics to attract the Millennial Generation will the Occupy movement break out of its original, limited conception as simply being a way to express unhappiness with current economic conditions. To fully achieve its potential, even without a permanent, physical presence in urban America, it must take the steps necessary to become a decisive, action-oriented voice within an emerging and powerful generation.
We’ll leave that for others to chew on, especially because we are not yet certain that these protests are Millennial enough. If they were, Occupy would have a greater chance of success as a movement. But Millennials clearly sympathize with the fundamental message of Occupy. Beset by over a trillion dollars in college loan debt and high unemployment, they believe the system isn’t working for them.
In terms of process, Millennials are just fine with the leaderless, horizontal nature of the Occupy demonstrations, something some older generations deride, criticize, or attempt to change. For instance, we learned from Millennials we spoke to within the past several weeks in New York and Boston,that decisions at Occupy Boston could be made with 75 percent agreement while Occupy Wall Street’s consensus rules required a unanimous vote before action could be taken. Because Millennials have been taught both the value and practice of consensus decision-making since they were toddlers, none of those we spoke with questioned the practicality of such an approach.
However, on a tactical and personal level the Millennials we talked to were a lot less enthusiastic about actually joining the protests than their economic circumstances might have suggested. In part this reluctance stemmed from their feeling that the protesters had no clear action agenda, a reflection of the generation’s pragmatic impulses.
This was often characterized as a “lack of goals,” but also sometimes by asking questions like, “Why don’t they all just go out and get registered to vote and tell everyone else to do so?” Millennials are an idealistic generation that believes in making the world a better place by working together, but they don’t think this happens just by talking about the problem. A clearer course of action on the part of the Occupy movement would appeal directly to the desire of Millennials to get involved where and when they can make an immediate difference.
Some of the reluctance to become personally involved was understandably based on individual circumstances. In direct contrast to what motivated Boomer protesters in the sixties, some worried that joining such protests might embarrass their parents. Others didn’t want to risk their perfect record of proper civic behavior by getting arrested. For most Millennials, success in life has become a series of hoops that need to be jumped through. Anything that might jeopardize their ability to do that is often avoided.
Still, that didn’t stop many of the Millennials we talked to in New York and Boston
from at least visiting the protests, even if they made sure to do so in their best looking clothes to distinguish themselves to police who might be deciding whom to arrest. If Occupiers brushed up their appearance, these Millenials said, protest critics would have a harder time denegrating the movement as only made up of the unemployed or poor people.
Visuals matter a lot to Millennials and many observers from older generations remark on how generally well-behaved the crowds at the protests have been. Occupiers have organized the tasks of clean-up, food distribution, security, and even publicity in ways designed to reflect well upon the gatherings, a clear indication of the overwhelmingly Millennial demographics of those who have actually joined the protests.
Of course the outbreak of urban protests of any kind has reawakened nostalgia among some Baby Boomers, who have rushed to the aid of the Occupy movement bringing promises of notoriety and money as well as advice on tactics and strategies based upon what seemed to work in the 1960s.
Millennials respect their parents and often look to Boomers for mentoring and guidance. Consequently, Boomers will be politely welcomed at the protests, but those hoping this will enable their generation to finally foment the revolution of its youthful dreams are bound to be disappointed. Millennials want to fix institutions or establish new ones, but they have little time and patience for tearing them down.
As Bill Maher, a Boomer who clearly gets Millennial beliefs, put it, “They aren’t looking for free love, they want paid employment.”
It should not surprise anyone that this Millennial-dominated protest movement is organizing locally and using social networking sites from Facebook to Twitter, and, most effectively, YouTube, to build its momentum. To be even more successful, it will need to further localize its goals.
For example, Occupy Los Angeles is pushing the LA City Council to adopt a “responsible banking” ordinance that would invest the city’s funds only in those financial institutions that did not participate in the financial wheeling-dealing that led to the 2008 financial crisis. Just as an insistence on only investing in companies that abided by the Sullivan Principles in trade relations with South Africa proved to be effective in helping end that country’s apartheid regime, this kind of locally focused demand could provide additional energy and a series of growing victories to the cause.
In this and many other ways, we believe the success of the Occupy movement will depend on its ability to become even more aligned with Millennial beliefs and behaviors as it evolves. If the demonstrators can avoid becoming co-opted by other generations or groups with their own agendas based on grievances of the past, and focus instead on the changes they wish to see going forward, there is a very good chance that the Occupy protests will become a major milestone in the development of America in the Millennial era.