Bridging Generational Divides in the Pursuit of Political Change

BY Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur

Generational divides are not new, though perhaps every generation thinks it is the first to experience one. In the 1960s, the saying was “Don’t trust anybody over 30;” today, the generation that did not trust even the middle aged recoils when younger folks say “OK, Boomer.” These divides reflect both cohort effects and age effects: older people have had years to refine their perspectives on activism and politics, perspectives forged through experiences in movements ranging from anti-War to second-wave feminism, from gay rights to anti-nuclear power, while younger people are filled with energy and enthusiasm and sometimes have little perspective on how their vital work fits into the histories of activism they encounter. So how do these divides matter for the work of political activism today? And what might activists do to bridge them? My answers to these questions draw on both my scholarship in the sociology of social movements and my experience as part of coalitional work in activism and local politics.

First of all, it is important to note that the arguments often made in the scholarship on social movements about the role of college students as activists are based on outdated models of the student experience that no longer reflect the real experiences of typical college students. In his important work on Freedom Summer, Doug McAdam pointed out that some people experience fewer “personal constraints that may increase the costs and risks of movement participation, such as full-time employment, marriage, and family responsibilities,” a situation he referred to as “biographical availability.” Scholars have taken this analysis to mean that college students more generally are biographically available. But today’s college students face many “constraints that may increase the costs and risks of movement participation.” They are much more likely than the students McAdam to be working full-time jobs (or multiple part-time jobs) as well as to have caretaking responsibilities and to experience vulnerabilities like housing insecurity or lack of citizenship that may increase the risk of participating in activism. Furthermore, much of the research on student activism has focused on the experiences of students at elite residential colleges, ignoring the majority of students who attend community colleges or public comprehensive colleges close to home. Such students experience activism and political engagement in a very different way, as Daisy Verduzco Reyes’s work shows.

But none of this should minimize the importance of paying attention to generational differences among those who areinvolved in activism. Older and younger activists come to their activism with different ideas about what issues are most important, what tactics are likely to be effective, and what it means to succeed. And arguments about these choices may result in both older and younger activists feeling that the other group is ignoring their wisdom, their energy, and their good ideas. Such arguments, as we have seen in the context of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, extend well beyond activism and into the electoral arena, where pundits, politicians, and protesters alike debate the merits of accomplishment and pragmatism versus ideological purity. These debates can and do cause rifts among activists, leading them to dismiss erstwhile allies as alternatively establishmentarian or unrealistic, and can leave some young voters feeling alienated from the political process.

So, what can activists do to bridge these divides and enhance the participation of young people in activism and politics? I want to propose three ideas here, none of which are sufficient to resolve the disconnect but all of which could help movements and campaigns do better at engaging people of all ages. First of all, there is a misplaced focus on national politics in seeking to mobilize young people (and perhaps people of all ages). Following national politics may make people feel engaged, but it also has the tendency to make them feel like their actions will have little impact. After all, what is one vote, one phone call, or one protestor out of millions? But at the local level, individual involvement makes a much bigger impact. Local elections may be determined by a single vote, a handful of phone calls can be enough to convince a state legislator to prioritize an issue, and one activist’s good ideas can change the shape of a movement. Localities and states make important decisions about access to reproductive health care, zoning regulations, the cost of college, voting access, prison policy, and other vital issues. Engaging people young and old in local politics has the potential to build their political self-efficacy, heighten their engagement, and enhance the social ties that support participation in activism.

Second, coalitions do not have to agree on everything. Different social movement organizations, interest groups, and political campaigns can come together to build a coalition that works towards shared goals while employing different strategies and tactics. Such coalitional work can be difficult, as coalition partners will experience disagreements of many kinds. But coalitions can work out a shared understanding of the path forward in which they communicate regularly, come to accept each other’s unique perspectives and approaches, and capitalize on these distinctions in ways that benefit the cause. For example, a considerable volume of scholarship, including my own work on student movements for curricular change, has found benefits to activism that incorporates both insiders and outsiders, with each group contributing in different ways.

Finally, activists can work to develop approaches in which all voices can be heard without becoming “an endless meeting.” While participatory democracy remains a laudable approach, it is particularly likely to founder in contexts in which there are large blocs of people, divided by age or any other characteristic, who simply do not agree. But there are many techniques that can enhance participation in deliberation without necessarily requiring complete consensus to make progress, be they the progressive stack approach popularized by Occupy or more complex forms of collective deliberation in which people share ideas and priorities anonymously in writing and then work in small groups to elevate those most able to produce a shared sense of commitment.

Working together across the gulfs of difference can be challenging, and in some ways age presents a unique difficulty given that it is so easy for older people to dismiss younger ones as inexperienced and for younger people to dismiss older ones as outmoded. But there are paths forward, if activists understand that despite the differences in their experiences and perspectives, they are working toward shared goals and that multiplicities of views can be a strength. Key to doing so is remembering that young people, especially students, lead lives that are just as busy and complicated as their elders, if not more so, and finding ways to ensure that there is space for varied approaches to change.

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