What Motivates Millennials?

(originally published in the Falls Church News-Press)

Much ink has been spilled about what Democrats can do to win back the Rust Belt voters who switched from voting Obama in 2012 to voting Trump in 2016. Unfortunately, not enough focus has been given to a group that might be easier to reach in the coming years: young eligible voters who chose not to vote at all. Half of all Millennials stayed home on Election Day, a phenomenon that assuredly drove the election’s outcome: while Trump won Seniors 52%-45%, Trump lost Millennials 37%-55%. If Democrats want to win the next election, they would be smart to think about what would motivate those 24 million young people who last year’s candidates failed to inspire to vote.

When confronted with this challenge, party strategists tend to employ two misguided strategies. Their first strategy is to deploy what I call “civic engagement finger-wagging”: criticizing young people’s disengagement by appealing to platitudes about the almost-religious importance of voting (like “people died so that you could vote” or “It doesn’t matter who you vote for: just vote!”).

This strategy is ineffective, because people do not vote because they care about voting: they vote because they care about the deeper projects for which their votes stand. To be invested in voting, you have to be invested in a direction in which you want the country to move. To be invested in a direction in which your country could move, you have to be invested in your country. If we do not connect young people to their country — by engaging them in the public life of their own neighborhoods and towns — and if we do not empower young people to imagine themselves as being able to lead their country in a fresh direction — by respecting their ideas and fostering their initiatives — then young people will never become invested in voting.

A second misguided strategy that politicians use to motivate Millennials is to highlight political issues in which Millennials, they perceive, have a self-interest. They think they will win over Millennials by, say, talking about the national debt (“you know, you’re going to have to pay for this one day!”) or narrowly focusing on, say, student loans or legalizing pot.

This is also ineffective, because it appeals to young people as self-centered consumers rather than as moral-centered citizens. Our consumer preferences might motivate us to buy one toothbrush over another, but they will not motivate us to participate in something as beautifully irrational as casting our lone ballot in with millions of others. To vote, we need to first become part of something bigger than ourselves, a process which requires politicians to appeal, in Lincoln’s words, to “the better angels of our nature.”

The great sociologist Emile Durkheim warned of two paths to societal unhappiness. One was insufficient individualism: society requesting too much of its members and overwhelming people. We all know about the dangers of this type of society: our culture is replete with tales of iconoclastic individuals liberating themselves from the constraints of oppressive roles.
Durkheim’s other unfortunate path, however, is much less discussed. This is the path of “anomie” or excessive individualism: society providing little moral guidance to individuals, because the bonds of community, mentorship, care, and responsibility had broken down. Millennials today, perhaps more than any other generation, suffer under a state of anomie. We are given infinite choice and total consumer freedom. But we yearn for solidarity: a sense of belonging and purpose. If done in a spirit of solidarity, politics has the potential to be be one antidote to our generational isolation and drift.

Perhaps a lesson can be drawn from the story of civic organizations in the past decades. When mid-century community groups were seeing declining numbers, civic leaders split on what to do to stop the bleeding. Half of the organizations thought the best way forward was to ask less of their members: to loosen each members’ required commitments by demanding less time and less effort from each of them. The other half thought the best way was to ask more of their members: to re-affirm members’ required commitments by calling for more time and more effort from them. Surprisingly, organizations that loosened their requirements continued to wither and organizations who re-affirmed their requirements became vibrant again. Indeed, people are drawn to groups that demand enough of them to become a part of their identity.

If we are to meet the immense public challenges of our age, we young people need to make long-term civic commitments. Fortunately, as many of our elders know, these day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out, decade-in-decade-out commitments are a path to great joy. We need their help to teach us of what the poet Jack Gilbert put best: “not the marvelous act” but “the beauty that is of many days… the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.”

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