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Millennials Are Engaging in Political Action Now More Than Ever

A new report shows that, despite stereotypes, young people are creating the greatest amount of social change.

Derrick Feldmann

Derrick Feldmann

Photo via Flickr user fibonacciblue.

This is an opinion piece by Derrick Feldmann, founder of the Millennial Impact Project, which just published its ninth annual study of millennial cause behaviors and motivations.

They say rules are made to be broken. Why, then, is breaking down a stereotype nearly impossible? No matter what data someone may present, we find that the "rules" associated with stereotypes too often refuse to bend.

Let's look at recent history around the 2016 presidential election, for example. The media was filled with stereotypes of what millennials (born 1980-2000) would do, were and weren't doing, and why: They didn't show up to vote. Apathy was at an all-time high. Even our own research reflected muted activity by millennials.

Then something happened. A new administration got the reins of power, and its actions seemed to light up this generation. Millennials don't want to follow where the administration is taking us. And we have the data to prove not only their dissatisfaction but the unique form of activism they're engaged in to change it.

Hope (and some dissatisfaction) is driving involvement

In our research, 3,000 millennial study participants shared their political and cause-related perceptions and behaviors last year and since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In an impressive statistic, those 3,000 millennials reported performing 13,000 actions related to causes and social issues they cared about from roughly July 2016 to July 2017. That's an average of over a thousand actions a month. Moreover, our study showed that a larger percentage of millennials (65 percent) voted in the presidential election than the percentage of the American public (55 percent) did.


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I cannot believe this level of activity fits a stereotype of apathy. Our study sample showed a divided millennial mindset, but not unconcern: A third of this generation think the country is headed in the right direction, a third the wrong direction, and a third aren't sure how they feel. About President Trump specifically, half are unsatisfied, a quarter is satisfied and a quarter is neutral.

Millennials are highly involved. For now, they are effectively directing their powerful voices to government and institutions.

Old meets new activism

Of those millennials who have been more active in social issues since the election, the majority still look to institutions, including government, to correct the course of the country and address the causes/social issues they care about. We see evidence of millennials' belief in these longstanding institutions through the high frequency of such actions as voting, contacting political representatives, and creating and signing petitions.

"Millennials possess the ability to organize, drive awareness and influence the behavior of other generations through vast social media networks, with an ease and to a degree this country has never seen."

At the same time, the world's first digital generation has melded these tried-and-true activist methods with social media. Millennials possess the ability to organize, drive awareness and influence the behavior of other generations through vast social media networks, with an ease and to a degree this country has never seen. This ability has turned millennials into a force that goes beyond the influence of the biggest philanthropist in the world.

The first generation to grow up with digital outlets for their voices is turning them into megaphones for good. And those megaphones are reaching larger audiences every day.

Common wisdom tells us millennials are prime users of social media, which means they generate its content, too. Consider this: According to the Pew Research Center, three-quarters of Twitter users turn to their feed for news, and 78 percent of people under 50 get their news from social media content. If millennials are the primary users of social media, we can surmise this generation has used the ubiquitous smartphone to transform public conversation (for better and worse) and civic participation. When used for good, said a World Economic Forum article, social media has given citizens the power to become the source of ideas and change initiatives in an easier way than at any time in history.

"We already are seeing changes in our country that can be tied, directly or indirectly, to increased cause engagement through combined activism methods by the largest-ever living generation."

We already are seeing changes in our country that can be tied, directly or indirectly, to increased cause engagement through combined activism methods by the largest-ever living generation. With the Women's March in January 2017, we saw an example of how rapidly passionate millennials with social media networks can organize groups, get to the nation's capital and capital cities across the country, and grab the world's attention. From the suggestion of one woman to her friends, the idea of marching on Washington spread to 10,000 women (and men) overnight and continued to grow, resulting in a movement with momentum continuing still today. As University of Ottawa Professor Kathleen Rodgers told The Guardian, "The key to political change … is that sort of continued engagement."

Other examples: Forbes predicted earlier this year that companies would remain committed to sustaining their CSRs (corporate responsibility programs) regardless of any political changes. And in an article headlined "Can Millennials Save the Democratic Party?" in The Atlantic, the writer opined that Trump's poor relationship with millennials could be to the Democratic Party's advantage in the next election. Remember, millennials will make up the largest generation of eligible voters in 2020.

"More than half of millennials believe in the power of their own actions and the abilities of organizations they support to create positive change"

If you've been following the body of research that makes up the Millennial Impact Project, this tidal wave of millennial involvement in causes shouldn't come as a surprise. Our team of researchers identified early that millennial cause engagement was moving from interest to activism, would expand as millennials aged and causes learned how to connect with them, and would ultimately alter traditional models of giving and creating change in the world.

What we did not predict, however, is how this digital generation would keep many traditional forms of activism – voting, petitioning, contacting representatives – and combine them with actions taken via social media.

Trust in one's self, too

While millennials, even the dissatisfied ones, still do have a level of trust in the government, they don't put the future solely in government's hands. More than half of millennials believe in the power of their own actions and the abilities of organizations they support to create positive change. They use all tools available to them – whether traditional or new – to make a difference for the issues and causes they care about. As a result, as we've discussed, this generation has begun to dramatically alter philanthropy and society's perceptions of how to inspire change locally, nationally and globally.

What does this mean for causes and nonprofits today and in the next 10 years?

Read More: New York Needs to Nix Strict Voting Laws to End Voter Suppression

I cannot stress this enough: Today, even the most well-funded causes need an army behind them, equipped with a powerful voice of concern and interest. No cause is immune to today's challenges and waning interests – including yours. To build an army, organizations must change their mindsets to align with today's highly influential generation. Start by asking yourself, Do we have the people and organizational structure to utilize the voice of this generation for good?

Are you willing to energize this generation of movement makers with new opportunities for expression and activism? Or will your nonprofit or company cause simply wait until millennials have the financial resources to be traditional donors – and give up the power and influence of this generation?