A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Millennials: Deal, don’t surrender!

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., June 11, 12 or 13

I first suspected indifference by Millennials in 2008, when the Millennial I’m closest to, my son, was casting his first ballot in a presidential election and texted me from the voting booth: “If I want to write in Chuck Norris, do I have to spell it out ‘Charles Norris’?”

I was reminded of this smooth smart-aleck after a recent League of Women Voters presentation, when I outlined the challenges in reversing the Supreme Court’s Money-Above-All “Citizens United” decision. A young woman said, “I agree it’s terrible, but nobody I know my age votes.”

However, I think if apathy is gripping Millennials – about 80 million Americans were born between 1981 and 1997 – it’s less about age than class.

As Millennials tried to move from adolescence into adulthood, they’ve been hammered with bills from the Iraq War the country was misled into waging, the Great Recession that saw few consequences for the Big Banks that caused it, skyrocketing student debt from trying to get ahead, and stagnating wages that make progress difficult, if not impossible. All that is in addition to a climate of media saturation that can be charitably called “over-share,” where social media and reality shows can be as bad as Fox News in polarizing us, or convincing us that elected officials are corrupt or incompetent, so why bother?

Public service, much less compromise, is for suckers since little ever changes, distrustful young cynics think.

Nevertheless, Millennials: no excuses. Things seem to suck, OK. But surrendering will only worsen the situation. Acquiescing to the inevitable lousiness of public affairs abdicates not just your responsibilities, but your influence. Accepting the status quo gives up the power to reject bad politicians or policies by means of voting, organizing or direct action.

In their new book, “Running from Office: Why Young Americans Are Turned Off to Politics,” Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless write that the “political system will thrive only if a large number of people aspire one day to run for office. For that reason, our results ultimately paint a grim picture about the prospects for an engaged citizenry and a healthy democracy. Our brightest and most able young citizens are generally not open to seeking or holding positions of political power.”

Or even voting.

Only about one in five Millennials voted in November, so ideas to address income inequality, predatory college loans, energy independence, violence, voting rights, etc., are stalled, stymied by officials who pay more attention to campaign contributors, corporations and lobbyists than their constituents.

In contrast, older Americans vote, and while many agree that government isn’t effective, their displeasure can be exploited by the forces of fear. (Fox News’ audience has a median age of 70.) And as enjoyable, entertaining and informative as “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” are, they’re as inferior to traditional news operations as the exaggerations, propaganda and falsehoods on cable TV and talk radio.

Further, aside from a handful of organizations of mass constituencies, such as the Fight For 15 folks or the Young Invincibles group, there are too few places where young adults work on reforms.

One may be labor unions. Polls by Gallup and Pew show that about 60 percent of Millennials have favorable opinions of unions. But these young Americans must take the next step and join or form a union. In some ways, it’s a natural progression for a generation accustomed to working in groups and insisting on good communications. Collaborations and feedback should be key to effective unions (although labor hasn’t always held up such sensible standards), and Millennials have started using labor law to make a difference, notably in struggles to raise the minimum wage and to gain recognition as unions for grad-student or adjunct faculty or as collegiate athletes.

Such efforts are difficult, but worth doing.

Activism beats the alternative, which is detachment and a doom that permits injustice to continue.

It wasn’t a Millennial, but a Baby Boomer – Bruce Springsteen – who said it and sang it: “No retreat, baby. No surrender!”

Maybe catch a clue from Chuck Norris. After all, as it’s said, “If Chuck Norris were to run for President, he'd be his own running mate. And all other candidates would drop out.”

[PICTURED: Logos for two Millennial activist groups.]

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