By Jessica Taft
Whenever I read yet another commentary that purports to describe the characteristics of millennials I can’t help but sigh and roll my eyes a bit. How will they be characterized today, I wonder? Self-absorbed? Socialists? Apathetic? Entrepreneurial? Fragile? Resilient? Unfortunately, the tendency to generalize about generations, especially when that generation’s members are in their youth or young adulthood, is pervasive. While I firmly believe that sociologists should engage with the vital question of how a group’s shared experiences growing up in a particular historical and social context shapes their identities, including their political identities, the nuances often get lost and oversimplified when generational thinking is deployed in news and popular culture. So it is with some serious hesitation that I enter into this dialogue about millennials and activism.
Millennials, or those born between 1980 and either 1996 or 2000, depending on who is doing the defining, are an incredibly diverse group. They are diverse in the sense that those on the older end of this imagined category and those on the younger end have, in fact, also lived their lives in very different historical and social contexts. Today’s 38 year olds and today’s 22 year olds may all be millennials, but their relationships to the major events and social transformations of the past twenty years are also profoundly different. And, of course, millennials are also diverse in the sense that their experiences are shaped by their other intersecting identities, including race, class, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, and sexuality.
But while millennials themselves are too diverse to capture in singular terms, the discourses about them are useful objects for sociological analysis. While there are some common patterns in the narratives about many generations during their youth/young adulthood, such as being called lazy and self-indulgent, generational narratives can also illuminate specific social anxieties, including anxieties that activists have about the future of social movements. For example, talk about millennials’ online activism, or the common critique that they are just clicking and sharing, not doing “real” activism, reflects broader concerns about how digital forms of political participation might be re-shaping social movements more generally. But millennial activists were never the only ones engaging in online forms of activism, and many millennial activists have also continued to use offline tactics, bridging digital forms of protest with more traditional social movement repertoires (Earl and Kimport 2011; Valenzuela et al. 2012; Earl et al. 2017).
Although millennials’ diverse political strategies and multiple forms of political engagement have perhaps received more attention recently, their active participation in social movements is not a new phenomenon. It didn’t start with #metoo, or Black Lives Matter (founded in 2013 by three queer black women who fit within the common boundaries of the millennial generation), or even 2011’s Occupy Wall Street. If we look back to when the oldest millennials were teenagers, in the mid-1990s, some of them were actively involved in the youth-led struggles against the wave of ballot measures that targeted young people of color in California (Pintado-Vertner 2004). They were part of newly formed groups like Inner City Struggle in Los Angeles, and Youth Together in Oakland, engaging in community-based youth organizing for racial and economic justice. Post 9-11, young people in high school and college played important roles in anti-war activism, attending marches to prevent the war in Iraq in large numbers and challenging expanded military recruitment in their schools (Allison and Solnit 2007). The early 2000s saw the formation of a vibrant undocumented youth movement for the DREAM Act, comprehensive immigration reform, and migrant rights (Nicholls 2013; Negron-Gonzales 2015). Gay-straight alliances and LGBTQ youth spaces also expanded dramatically during the 1990s and 2000s as young people demanded that their schools and communities address gender- and sexuality-based harassment and discrimination (Driver 2008; Russell et al. 2009). While there are many more examples that I could give, it is clear from this quick overview that millennials have not recently entered into activism – they have been a presence in U.S. social movements for more than twenty years.
One important dynamic that this history makes clear is that millennial activists, unlike previous generations, have grown up in the context of increased institutionalized opportunities to connect with movements and to develop their own projects for social change. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, a rapidly expanding number of national and local non-profit organizations dedicated to youth activism, as well as many online networks formed by young activists, explicitly encouraged the critical political engagement of teenagers and transformed the landscape of high-school politics (Gordon 2010; Conner and Rosen 2016). While millennial activists and organizers today are no longer in high school, these kinds of spaces supported their activist skill development and enabled them to connect with one another in unprecedented ways. For example, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, began organizing with the LA Bus Riders Union as a teenager. Cristina Jimenez, executive director of United We Dream, also became involved in activism in high school and connected quickly with a New York City community organization that advocated for youth engagement. And Emma Gonzalez, one of the dynamic leaders of the student resistance to gun violence, has talked about how her experience in her school’s gay-straight alliance gave her both confidence in herself and a set of organizing skills that have been vital to her ability to take on such a visible role in this new struggle.
Sociologists who have published on contemporary youth activism over the past fifteen years have been writing about millennials, even though we have not necessarily discussed them in generational terms. This body of research shows how millennials’ participation in social movements is not new, and it draws attention to some of the key contextual features shaping these activists’ practices, including hip hop culture, the institutionalization of youth organizing, neoliberal governmentality, ideals of horizontalism and participatory democracy, and digital platforms and identities (Clay 2012; Braxton 2016; Terriquez 2014; Kwon 2013; Taft 2011; Jenkins et al. 2016). The sociology of youth activism productively highlights a wide range of social movements that have been organized by and with millennials, but it also explores the particularities of each case, effectively pushing back against the universalizing tendencies and oversimplified adjectives that dominate popular narratives about generational difference.