What You See Depends on Where You Look

In his usual ill-timed way, as “Occupy” protests started to spread across the country, columnist and author Tom Friedman used his appearance on MTV to tell ”young people [that they] need to be paying attention right now because we’re messing with your future.”

This was only the most recent occasion when Friedman suggested that today’s young people—the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003)—are somehow too quiet, inattentive, or apathetic about the weighty issues that confront their generation and the nation. At least as far back as 2007, when the issue was the Iraq war, Friedman argued that Millennials should follow the example of his generation—Baby Boomers—and take to the streets to directly protest the war and confront the government that was waging it, even as Millennials were organizing to elect a presidential candidate who kept his promise to phase out America’s involvement in that conflict.

Millennials are not apathetic or inattentive. Given their relatively limited employment prospects, high student loan debts and the fact that it is their generation that makes up most of America’s fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan, it defies logic to suggest that Millennials are unaware of and do not care about what is going on around them.

In 2008, Millennials, for all practical purposes, elected President Obama. Turning out in larger numbers than young people had for decades and voting for Barack Obama over John McCain by a greater than 2:1 margin (66% to 32%), their generation contributed about 80 percent of the president’s popular vote margin of victory. A recent CNN survey indicates that Obama maintains this same 2:1 lead among Millennials against all of his likely 2012 GOP opponents. (PDF) And, Millennials hold positions that are in almost total contrast to those of older generations on the range of issues that are currently the focus of debate in American politics. According to Pew Survey Research Center data, by a 54% to 39% margin Millennials favor a larger activist government that “provides more services” to a “smaller government that provides fewer services.” By 64% to 31% Millennials endorse gay marriage and by 69% to 26% they believe that immigrants strengthen rather than threaten American society and values.

Of course, Friedman might argue that just because Millennials have distinctive beliefs, they don’t seem to be very busy acting on those beliefs. Actually, however, Millennials are plenty busy. Perhaps if Friedman were to meet and talk with Millennials such as Hilary Doe, who heads the Roosevelt Institute’s Campus Network efforts to develop and implement a comprehensive program to reshape all aspects of American life by 2040 detailed in their Blueprint for a Millennial America, he might think differently about the level of public advocacy among Millennials. Or maybe he should observe the Millennial Leadership Summit in November in New York City where, Mobilize.org, the organization Maya Enista leads, will provide leadership development opportunities for already successful Millennial social entrepreneurs and encourage other members of the network to further develop their leadership skills..

Maybe Friedman is missing all of this involvement and hard work because what Millennials are doing and how they go about doing it doesn’t make for “good TV” like the “in your face” protest tactics that Friedman’s Boomer Generation used almost half a century ago. But despite Boomer fixation with the technology of their youth, just because it’s not on TV, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Millennials are neither inactive nor docile, but are working hard to fix the unresponsive institutions and inequitable systems they have inherited from earlier generations. If Boomers would take the time to look in the right places they would see—and maybe even feel good about—what Millennials are doing to clean up the mess that Friedman acknowledges his generation created for its kids and grandkids.