Everyone intuitively knows it, but few will say it—either because they don’t want to be a grump, or because they haven’t connected the theoretical dots. But I am willing to be that grump, and I have connected the dots, so I’ll say it: there’s no such thing as a Millennial.
The earlier responses to this essay prompt on generations and social movements are full of insights on activism today so I will focus on the generation angle: What would it mean if new youth activism were truly a generational phenomenon? The answer to this question requires that we drop the Millennial label and the theoretical baggage that comes with it because the very idea of a Millennial falls squarely on the wrong side of a paradigmatic divide in generational theory. Smuggling that discredited generational mythology into our activism and research distracts us from the reality of generational change. Continue reading
In a June 2014 segment on network neutrality, John Oliver encouraged his viewers to “turn on caps-lock and fly my pretties” in an effort to encourage the Federal Communications Commission to uphold the principle of network neutrality and an open internet. In a 20-minute segment that launched a thousand ships, Oliver’s remarks motivated the public to post millions of comments within the FCC online commenting system- ultimately overwhelming and crashing the system. For many journalists, Oliver’s call for action was a success and the motivation for the 2015 decision to uphold Network Neutrality. Continue reading
Two years ago I focused my ASA Presidential address on social movements led by Millennials, building on Karl Mannheim’s classic treatise on “The Problem of Generations.” As the first generation of “digital natives,” and the one most directly impacted by the economic precarity that emerged from the neoliberal transformation of the labor market, the Millennial generation has a distinctive life experience and worldview. Disappointed by the false promises of racial and gender equality, and faced with skyrocketing growth in class inequality, Millennial activists embrace an explicitly intersectional political agenda. Continue reading
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.
When Parkland students began their press for gun control, public reaction varied from inspired, to surprised, to dismissive. Critics charged that the students didn’t have enough experience or knowledge to be involved in the presumptively adult-oriented world of politics, although others were simply surprised because they bought into the idea that young people are not that engaged. But, for people who have been studying youth political engagement, their activism was less surprising than it was to see adults actually pay attention to it.
After the Parkland shooting, Emma Gonzalez gave a thoughtful and furious speech calling “BS” on politicians, the NRA, and corporations for their complicity with the proliferation of guns and gun violence. Gonzalez began her conclusion by stating that “[t]he people in government who were voted into power were lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice…” and ended by calling BS on the notion “that us kids don’t know what we’re talking about, that we’re too young to understand how the government works.” In the case of Parkland—as well as recent campus activism—media and supporters have celebrated youth leading the way, but youth activism is not always so well received. John Lewis famously railed against being told to “be patient and wait” by older Civil Rights activists. Others have questioned whether online activism could have an impact. More have raised concerns over whether activism against racism on campus is a misstep or a distraction from addressing institutionalized inequality. But to understand these critiques we must first recognize the role that youth plays as an identity for young activists.