By Nicholas Adams
The word “millennial” is most often heard as a form of slander from the lips of our elders, connoting any number of undesirable traits: laziness, gluttony, lust, impulsiveness, self-absorption. They call us “snowflakes.” They call us “kids.” All to imply that they should be the ones to remain on top, and we should accept our place at the bottom. In this discourse, they are filling our heads with the idea that we are not ready, that politics is for our elders, and will remain so until we are the elders. However, unlike the generation before us, the terribly apathetic Generation X, the millennial generation seems unwilling to take this lying down. We aren’t satisfied to let the baby boomers chart the course of our entire lives; we aren’t simply content to wait for a turn that may never come to belatedly solve the problems that will face us in our adult lives. Yes, much like the boomers in their youth, millennials are today refusing to accept the authority of our elders, questioning the path they have laid out for us, and fighting for our own collective good for the world we want to live in.
Another name the millennial generation goes by is the “echo-boomers,” mostly because there was a small baby boom in the prosperous years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries in which the boomers came of age, and our generation arose from them. I am inclined to argue, however, that this moniker is true for more than demographics. We stand in a cultural moment akin to the uproarious times of the sixties and seventies, when the boomers were coming of age, and are, like them, preparing to take over leadership for a nation from a generation twice behind us. As the boomers challenged the Greatest Generation in their coming of age over the apathy of the Silent Generation, we now challenge the boomers over the silence of Generation X. We argue, we protest, and we break convention—just as the boomers did before us—to build a new world. We acknowledge valid lifestyles derided as sinful by our forefathers, creating our own forms of art, expression, and socialization, interacting with a new generation of technology that begets a life fundamentally different from the ones they lived. We fight to save ourselves from the sins of generations past and still present.
Just as the boomers marched to save the world from war and nuclear annihilation, we march to save the world from climate suicide. Just as the boomers fought for sexual freedom outside the rigid constraints of society, we fight for the acknowledgment of other, perfectly valid and fulfilling sexual and romantic lifestyles. Just as the boomers campaigned for equal rights for women, we campaign to overturn patriarchy itself. Just as the boomers stood up behind the dream of legal equality for black and brown Americans, we kneel because we believe that black and brown lives matter just as much as anybody else’s, and deserve empowerment and restitution for the vast injustices they have faced. We are more than just echo-boomers. We are ramping up the fight for justice that began with our progenitors.
These strands come together to create an exciting moment in history, as the millennial generation asserts itself as co-equal to all that came before us, and assumes leadership of our national project of creating a more perfect union. Today, millennials have assumed a position of leadership when it comes to culture and new politics. Millennial modes of communication have proliferated and evolved, as the rest of society follows our lead onto the internet and social media. Millennials dominate the cultural landscape, with millennial musical artists by-and-large dominating the airwaves, making us laugh on television, and creating our own “meme culture” over social media. We are the prized targets of marketers everywhere: the trend-setters, the influencers, the athletes, and the models.
Meanwhile, our generation has assumed a position of thought leadership in politics. Greta Thunberg has led a worldwide movement to fight climate change. Emma Gonzalez led the largest march in the history of our nation’s capital to end the scourge of gun violence. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has raged into Congress like a hurricane, asserting herself as a dominant force in national politics, even as a freshman representative well outside of the previously palatable political spectrum. And it’s not just the left where millennials have led a new generation of politics: millennials like Ben Shapiro and Stephen Crowder have used new forms of media to overturn the conservative establishment and build a new Republican Party around populism, as opposed to the gentrified elitism that has long characterized the party. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is unimaginable without these new-thought leaders creating an ideological block to support him, preparing a rabid fanbase for whichever populist had the name-recognition to direct its power.
Our chief opponents in this endeavor have been the boomer establishment. They are, understandably, not quite ready to give up command without a fight. This is a generation that had to wait over four decades to take control, as the Greatest Generation held a remarkable hold on political power, with every president who assumed office during the Cold War (roughly the entire postwar period through the fall of the Soviet Union) having been a veteran of the second world war. They fear the results of leaving the nation in our hands, which have been worn by such different circumstances then their own. We have no memory of the horrors of communism except for those passed down to us; we flirt with ideologies tailor-made to a century foreign to them. We are drowning in debt, high on knowledge and low on experience. How can they know we won’t slip and ruin the final years of their lives?
Fortunately, we need not wait for our elders to get comfortable with our abilities before we seize our rightful slice of the world. We can vote, with our wallets and our feet and our fists just as much as with our ballots. We can innovate and dominate and work our way to the top. We can force our own goals onto the agenda. We can build movements and debate and reason our way into the history books. We can follow the example set before by the boomer generation and demand that our voices be heard and our unique needs met.
We must force those in power to acknowledge that times have changed; the boogeyman died with the Soviet Union, and now we must face challenges entirely different in nature to those faced by that older generation. Our new enemies are nameless, faceless, and formless, unlike the very tangible fears of missiles, bullets, and oil shortages faced in the boomers’ coming of age. Our fight is against—more often than not—forces of nature and society, as opposed to other people. The longer the boomers keep searching for their new boogeyman, be it China or the Islamic world or even opposing ideologies at home, the longer it will take for millennials to fight the real dangers: the looming threat of manmade climate change, institutionalized and unconscious forms of oppression, and seemingly intractable market forces which threaten to collapse our livelihoods in an instant, or simply drag us down slowly into the abyss for all of eternity. We have a plethora of tools at our disposal to fight these new enemies, but boomers are too scared to use them. They are too entrenched in the old world to see that a new world has dawned. They are like the men in the cave of Plato’s Republic: they know nothing but the reality which they have observed, and are so encapsulated in this reality that the light burns their eyes, and they castigate and threaten those who wish to acknowledge the new reality of the world outside. It is the responsibility of our generation to either force those in power to take action, or to take the power ourselves, in order to make sure these world-changing issues are soundly addressed.
So, what might millennial leadership look like? It will certainly be worlds apart from anything in history. We can look to what millennial leadership looks like now for some clues. The technological changes that have defined our lives will certainly play an outsized role in what our nation looks like under our leadership. The use of social media to reach large groups of people was pioneered, to great effect, by Presidents Obama and Trump, and only stands to grow more impactful. Millennial candidates for public office will, by and large, stand naked to the nation, as it will only take a little digital sleuthing to acquire a solid record of public statements. This could be a boon or a bust, providing absolute transparency and trust for some, with scandal and scorn for others.
Millennial leaders will be unlikely to rely on mainstream media for information. The current president, as well as much of the boomer generation, has their news vetted and delivered by cable networks seeking maximum ratings, but many millennials cite social media as their predominant source of news. This creates twin currents in politics: the democratization of news media and the proliferation of misinformation and propaganda. The democratization of news has allowed the public to participate in mass politics, allowing new voices to enter the debate and bring new ideas into the market, as well as allowing for public scrutiny of established authority. Examples of these include Andrew Yang’s online movement around universal basic income and Black Lives Matter’s use of social media to draw attention to police brutality against black people.
Millennials are also heavily invested in movement politics. Whereas, for decades, chief focuses of political participation have been through voting and other forms of institutionalized politics, millennials often shy away from bodies of authority and get involved by protesting, both in person and online. The millennial generation is uniquely adept at utilizing technology to mobilize movements to create social pressure and strongarm large, powerful institutions. This has proven especially powerful at encouraging corporate reform, as malign corporations face the threat of widespread boycotts and narratives that can rapidly escalate beyond the point of their control, thanks to the Internet.
Millennial leadership will be unlike anything we have ever witnessed before. Our generation has grown up in a time of incredible technological and sociological progress, and our politics have been heavily influenced by these changes. The world needs millennial leadership. And we need to take it.