WASHINGTON — I am going to go out on a limb and make a prediction about the forthcoming presidential election. It’s not about who will receive the most votes, so as not to jeopardize our organization’s nonpartisanship, but rather whose vote will have the greatest impact on the American body politic.
My prediction is that the 18- to 24-year-old college-aged cohort — part of the Millennial generation — will emerge from this election as one of the most influential demographic groups in the United States, having already voted in record numbers in the past two national elections and reversing long-held assumptions about their insignificance and unreliability.
The prediction is based less on formal polling and more on personal observation and testimonials from college students across the country with whom we work every day. It is not difficult to track a generation that votes with its feet and with its deeds — not to mention their Facebook profiles, which are updated daily and awash with news of concerns, issues and causes.
In fact, to anyone who is actually listening to and/or watching this generation as it matures, it is becoming increasingly clear that these young people are engaging their peers and society in new and constructive ways. The values they espouse through their new brands of activism are challenging some of the long-held institutional structures developed by baby boomers and the disenfranchised (“slackers”) of Generation X.
Fueling this generational power play is not merely their large numbers but the multiplier effect of their social-networking culture. One manifestation of this trend was a recent overnight sensation titled the “Great Schlep” — a YouTube video watched by more than 1 million viewers that urged young Jewish adults to skip school or work for a few days to visit their grandparents in Florida and lobby them on behalf of the Obama campaign.
The video spoke to students in their own language: It encouraged them to personally engage, lobby or otherwise nag a reluctant family member — in person or by phone or electronic means — to vote for a candidate who promises to improve their future. This is a generation that actually talks to their elders, suggesting an interesting tweak to Wordsworth’s notion that the child is the father (or mother) to the grandparent.
Lest anyone think that the Great Schlep is merely a partisan phenomenon, it is important to note that young Republicans also have aggressively seized the blogosphere and that voter registration efforts that started on the campus green often lead to political pastures far from the quad.
The tools of engagement among this group are noticeably missing megaphones and barricades, possibly one of the reasons they have arrived with less bravado. Young Americans today express a sincere interest in issues ranging from the environment to foreign policy without much of the familiar ideological or partisan rancor. This seems, in part, to relate to their identification with global concerns that extend well beyond their own local community and set of immediate friends following 9/11, two wars, recent close national elections and now an unprecedented economic crisis.
The next occupant of the Oval Office has the opportunity to harness this youthful resource, assuming that he is able to think about young people as national assets who are ready, able and willing to engage in civil society for its betterment rather than dismissing them merely as liabilities who are a drag on the economy. Old school thinking has consistently undervalued the Millennials, yet Teach for America has been an employer of choice on leading campuses for the past few years, displacing Microsoft and others long before the onset of this most recent economic downturn.
No wonder candidates John McCain and Barack Obama participated in the recent Service Nation Summit at Columbia University in New York on Sept. 11. Not only was the event a demonstration of their civic engagement bona fides, it also provided the opportunity to appeal to a young audience.
In making the case for expanding service opportunities both domestically and overseas, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann described a student body more engaged in civic and political affairs than any since the 1960s, while Tulane President Scott Cowan noted the significant transformation of his university’s culture with the introduction of a community service requirement.
Regardless of who wins in November, one safe prediction for the post-election period is that this remarkably engaged young electorate will have heightened expectations as to what the new president will do for them. The question is whether the new president will fully understand what they can do for him.
(Wayne L. Firestone is the president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.)