Don't Underestimate the Millennials

February 24, 2007 | By Peter Leyden

The sleeper development that was widely overlooked in the 2006 election was the 22-percentage-point margin of support that went to Democrats over Republicans in congressional races by the up-and-coming young millennial generation. The millennial generation is made up of young people born in the 1980s and 1990s who are pouring out of college right now. Its an enormous generation, comparable to the baby boomers.

The first wave of millennials is now age 26—at about the same life stage as the oldest boomers were in 1970. Similar to the boomers, the millennials are poised to impact the country at every life stage and in myriad ways—but particularly in politics. The millennials are an unusual generation, not like young people we have seen for a long time. They are not individualistic risk-takers like the boomers or cynical and disengaged like Generation Xers. Signs indicate that millennials are civic-minded, extremely diverse and technologically savvy. Millennials have consistently shown they hold progressive values and worldviews—voting more heavily Democratic than other generations in their first few elections.

Everyone knows the boomers are a huge generation thats aging and is about to seriously stress our Social Security system. But few realize that the millennials are just as huge at 75 million, which is one-quarter of the current U.S. population of 300 million.

That’s the case partly because many are children of the boomers (the echo boom). The size of the generation is also boosted by the children of the unprecedented numbers of immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s. The millennials are the most diverse generation by far, with roughly 40 percent belonging to minority groups, Hispanics in particular. But generations are more than just numbers; they have personalities that are shaped by many factors, including whats happening in the world when they come of age.

The millennial personality comes closest to that of the GI generation, the one lauded by some as the Greatest Generation, members of which fought in World War II and built up America and the world in the postwar boom. Millennials are civic-minded, trust in leaders and are team-oriented rather than individualistic.

William Strauss—co-author of a series of books on generations, including Millennials Rising—argues that millennials show deep concern for today's income inequalities and social stratification, and that looking out for everyone in society may emerge as their mission much as it did for the GI generation. Millennials tend toward progressive positions in other areas, too, as a survey at the New Politics Institute, among other sources, shows. They take concern for global warming and the environment as a given, and they dont perceive differences between genders, races or sexual preferences the way other generations do. These nascent political beliefs show up in the elections they have participated in.

For instance, 55 percent of people age 29 and younger voted for Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry in 2004. Young people were the only generation to give Kerry a majority besides those of the GI generation who are still around. The results of the 2006 election, though, were even more striking. A huge majority of people age 29 and younger voted for Democrats over Republicans in the congressional elections. These millennials were also actors in this last election cycle. The campaign was characterized by people-powered politics, using grass-roots media such as blogs and videos on YouTube.

The great explosion of progressive politics under Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s was partly fueled by energized young people. Were seeing a very similar development today. The huge numbers of millennials are poised to drive a new progressive era that will reinvent what it means to be progressive and take on the new challenges of the 21st Century. Hang on for this ride.