I looked around the hotel lobby in surprise. The energy was the same, but it was…so different.
Putin’s troops were marching into Ukraine and the buzz around the hotel marked it as a major event. I caught news reports on the television in my hotel room, continued watching the TV in the hotel’s workout room, and then I went down to the main floor for breakfast. What I saw surprised me.
It also made me reflect back to other such events. When the first Gulf War broke out, for example, I spent hours in a crowded ballroom at the university I was attending, watching the war and the attacks in Iraq play out on huge screens. Thousands of students participated. Years later, on 9/11, I again watched the events unfold on television with many people gathered together — sharing emotions, consoling and trying to make sense of it all.
But the morning after Putin’s attack I witnessed a very different scene. As I walked into the lobby, I saw a small crowd gathered around the big screen television, watching news reports. I also noticed a second group, mostly seated in the coffee shop, all scanning the morning’s newspaper reports of the situation.
A third, larger group ignored both – its members spread throughout the lobby and restaurant, and even lounged on couches and chairs in the large hallways, texting and reading on smartphones.
The surprising thing about these three groups was that they were divided precisely by age. Those who appeared to be under thirty were texting, those between thirty and sixty watching the television together, and those above sixty were all studying newspapers. It was a bit eerie, the way these generational stereotypes held true that day in a hotel lobby.
As I reflected on it later, I kept thinking about the younger group. The Millennials, those born between 1984 and 2001, are frequently portrayed on the one hand as more innovative, creative and entrepreneurial than any generation since the 1940s, or, on the other hand, as entitled, unreliable, and easily distracted by the trivial.
Which is most accurate? In truth, like any generation in history, including the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Generation X (born 1964-1984), Millennials are a diverse group. Any generalization about a whole segment of the population is bound to be at least a bit imprecise.
With that said, three interesting trends do stand out. First, Millennials are currently more likely than people from any other generation to support and promote social and charitable causes online. Second, Millennials are the most likely to openly discuss their political views online.
Why? Partly because more Millennials per capita are active participants in social media. But there is also a deeper, third reason. Millennials tend to consider many words voiced online as “real.”
This is an interesting development, and it follows a pattern established by earlier technological breakthroughs in history. For example, early American generations saw news as “real” and “important” when it was printed in the newspapers, and during most of the 20th century the benchmark of news significance was its treatment on television.
It should be no surprise, then, that Millennials get most of their news online, and that a large part of it consists of peer opinions shared by other Millennials. All of this makes sense.
The challenge for Millennials is that if voicing thoughts on social media is enough to fill their interest in world events, their influence will remain limited. In the 2014 U.S. national midterm election, for example, only 13% of voting-age Millennials actually voted.
That’s right. A mere 13%.
As long as Millennials remain “Generation 13%”, their online discussions of important issues and ideas isn’t going to do much to shift government policy. Fewer politicians will care what they think, because they represent such a small portion of the actual voting electorate. And that’s a shame. Because of the voting-age generations today, those born after 1984 have the most to gain, and the most to lose, from our national choices right now.
Indeed, it is currently “those old people,” the ones watching TV or reading newspapers in hotel lobbies, who are largely determining our nation’s future. The young people, smartphones in hand, have the actual power to drastically improve our government — but only 13% of them bother to directly use it.
As more Millennials reach voting age, the percentage will increase some. And, in truth, many Millennials are skeptical of government and find other ways to make a positive difference. That’s good. But such efforts could be largely undone if the government isn’t on the same page…um, screen.
Seriously, just imagine what Generation 13% could do if it became Generation 60% or even Generation 90%.
Oliver DeMille is a New York Times bestselling author and popular keynote speaker at corporate, educational and leadership events. His newest book, The U.S. Constitution and the 196 Indispensible Principles of Freedom is a 21st-century primer for freedom around the globe, available at store.tjed.org. Connect with Oliver on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and at oliverdemille.com.