Millennials and Activism: New Strategies, Identities, and Coalitions

By Hava Gordon

The new millennium began with widespread hand-wringing about the retreat of youth from political engagement, with low voter turnout and a lack of faith in political leaders as the main metrics.  These commentaries directed our attention to the future health of our democracies, urging us to consider the ways in which a presumed adult “we” can best socialize youth into politics.  For many observers, the concern with youth political engagement (or lack thereof) was important insofar as this engagement determines the future vibrancy of our political system.  These dominant discourses and anxieties about youth apathy reflect a narrow focus on youth as “citizens in the making” instead of political forces in and of themselves.  Although youth are important as the future bearers of a democratic society, they are undeniably political forces in the present moment; both inside and outside of electoral politics.

Millennial activism has impacted politics over the last two decades in ways that reflect the specific historical conditions that shape this generation.  Despite stereotypes of millennials as over-indulged, coddled, and absorbed in their electronics, this generation faces growing economic instability; job precarity; lack of affordable housing; and the shrinking social safety nets associated with neoliberal shifts in the political economy.  This is true domestically and internationally.  One significant yet underreported dimension of the Arab Spring was the extent to which these resistance movements were led by millennials who had relatively high educational attainment but poor job prospects.  The youth-led Arab Spring uprisings called out the empty promise that education would lead to economic prosperity, and demanded that strong democratic states mitigate the vagaries of the market.  In Chile, a similar movement against the privatization of education became the vanguard of social uprising in that country against neoliberal policies that had dominated Latin America in the late 20th century.  This student-led movement became an inextricable part of the “pink tide” of resistance movements throughout Latin America that challenged neoliberal orthodoxy.  These youth-led movements represent profound battles for human security and strong social safety nets.  They have rocked the European core as well; from housing movements in Spain to anti-austerity movements in Greece.

Certainly, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) stands as a contemporary watershed movement in the U.S.; one that marks this current wave of continued protest against wealth inequality and economic instability.  OWS was largely organized by millennials’ mastery of media in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  Inspired by the horizontalism of the anti-globalization movement that took Seattle by storm just over a decade before, OWS also signaled a millennial politics that embraced direct action and eschewed formal and hierarchical organization.  While critics pointed to the weaknesses of such a diffuse protest movement, the broad reach of OWS reinvigorated social movement organizations aiming to halt home foreclosures, payday lenders, and other economic assaults on the poor and downwardly mobile.  It also foregrounded the cultural conversation on economic inequality across the country in ways that later took center stage in the 2016 presidential candidate campaigns.  In contrast to the predominantly White OWS, the “Dreamers” stand as another watershed millennial movement of the most marginalized; the undocumented, Latinx youth led by a critical mass of queer and LGBTQ activists.  Just as OWS became the heart of the movement against growing economic inequality, the Dreamers’ brand of storytelling, direct action, and policy projects such as in-state tuition and ending deportation became the heart of a rising immigrant rights movement in the new millennium.  Far from being passive objects in need of adult political socialization, millennial youth have served as the leading edge of our biggest battles for economic and racial justice.

In the United States, millennials are a generation of youth more likely than previous generations to be low-income and of color.  They are also more likely to embrace gay rights and gender identities that extend beyond the binary; breaking ranks with second-wave feminists who envisioned a world of women’s liberation and gender equity predicated on stable gender categories.  The same kinds of intersectional identities and political frameworks of the Dreamer movement also guide other major millennial movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM); a movement initially organized by three queer Black women that de-centers Black patriarchy even as it sheds light on the police killings of Black men.  BLM also works to frame state violence and White supremacy as intersectional injustices against queer and trans Black bodies in particular.

In these millennial movements, activist identities become intersectional.  But “intersectionality” extends beyond the realm of identity.  It is an activist ethic that also provides powerful coalition points for what might have been distinct movements in previous eras.  One example of this is the “Fight for $15” movement, in which low-wage millennials, many of whom are women of color working in the fast-food industry, frame sexual harassment and racial discrimination as salient workplace issues.  In this movement, gender and sexual justice, economic justice, and racial justice become inextricably linked.  The #MeToo movement– with its broad reach across workplaces as divergent as film studios and agricultural fields- also stands as an example of this intersection between labor, racial, and gender justice.  Finally, intersectional links in millennial movements also include the environment.  The Standing Rock movement represents fights for indigenous sovereignty and environmental sustainability, with activist ties to student movements pressuring their colleges and universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

As I write this, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes headlines for unseating a potential future Speaker of the House and Democratic incumbent who outspent her ten to one.  She is the youngest woman in the U.S. Congress and a Democratic Socialist representing the diverse neighborhoods of the Bronx and Queens, NY.  She credits her serious political beginnings to two formative experiences: her work in the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and her participation at Standing Rock.  For millennials like Ocasio-Cortez, electoral politics are not the ultimate expression of political engagement.  Rather, they are the extensions of the intersectional and decentralized progressive movements that millennial youth have already been leading.


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