A tale of two political generations

February 25, 2011 | By Chuck Raasch

Two competing scenes last weekend in Big 10 cities, one here and one in Madison, Wis., illustrated the new generation gap in American politics.

Here, in what is billed as the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, Penn State students raised more than $9.5 million for childhood cancer research. Their annual 46-hour dance marathon known as THON (a loose acronym from a long title) smashed the previous record by more than 20% despite a sagging economy. Since 1973, Penn State students have raised more than $78 million for university research. This year, an estimated 15,000 students participated.

This is a model of problem-solving by the generation of 75 million Millennials, born from 1982-2003. They are the great collaborators. They also are optimists, perhaps beyond reason, given that the $14 trillion federal debt and the structural deficits from the entitlements of preceding generations will fall on them throughout their earning years.

But the Penn State students, of whom my youngest son is one, take pride in attacking a problem collectively. THON happens mostly outside the student government and with minimal university administration involvement. The chairman this year, 22-year-old business major Kirsten Kelly, spent an extra year in college and put off finding a job to oversee the event.

"This is the definition of teamwork," Kelly said.

As they were dancing for cancer research in Happy Valley, tens of thousands of their parents' generation came to an angry, protect-my-turf stalemate in Madison, where the state capital has been besieged by a battle over Wisconsin's $3.6 billion budget deficit.

Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, wants to reduce benefits and strip state workers of collective bargaining, steps he says are necessary to ensure the state's long-term fiscal survival. Union members and liberal activists from around the country, declaring this the opening front of a national assault on their movement, have swarmed to frigid Madison. Angry Democratic legislators skipped the state to deny Walker a vote, and potential layoffs loom.

Similar showdowns have hit Indiana and Ohio, and could spill into other states. In the midst of this fiscal turmoil, President Obama threw gasoline on flickering culture fires by reversing his position on gay marriage, and directing his Justice Department to stop defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by fellow Democrat Bill Clinton.

But Kelly said that students on her campus were hardly paying attention to these larger-world tangles, that they were focused on what they could affect at home. Social researchers say Millennials are more actively engaged in taking on problems than any generation of emerging adults since their World War II era great-grandparents. It portends a vastly different body politic as this largest generation in American history gets older.

As a group, Millennials believe more in government than their elders, but as an instrument of compromise, not confrontation, said Neil Howe, one of the nation's top experts on generations.

"This is a generation that absolutely believes that it is very important that people get together and form a consensus and workable plan, and proceed together and get it done," Howe said. "There is a special distaste among the Millennials for the Boomer culture war stuff."

"This coming generation has a lot less tolerance for the kind of politics that is excessively polarized," agreed Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard University political scientist and close adviser to Clinton in the 1990s. "So the political party that wants to win in the future ... will have to begin to act differently, along more collaborative lines."

Cynics might argue that the partisanship wracking their parents' generation will be unavoidable when Millennials move through adulthood. But another former Clinton adviser, Bill Galston, who collaborated with Kamarck on a study of political moderates, said the political experiences of people in their 20s stick with them for the rest of their lives. Already, those from 18-29 are more likely to define themselves as moderates than any other age group, he said.

"If you were in your 20s during the Great Depression, despite things that happened to you the next 50 years, that's where you were politically," Galston said, referring to the New Deal. "What happens in the first three votes the Millennials cast is really important to the next 50 years."

Kelly is coming of age in an America that has been at war in Afghanistan for almost half her life. Her government's debt has exploded over her lifetime, and the globe is struggling to come out of its worst economic slump since the Depression. Now, in a weary aftermath of a year's effort on others' behalf, she needs to go find a job.

Connections