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The Kids Are All Right: Divining "the Millennial Future"

02/13/2015 03:13 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

On the evening of Feb. 11, New America NYC hosted a conversation -- or, if you will, a "convo" -- between four distinguished people who embody in their own right a different slice of a demographic born into the world between the years 1980 and 2000. As the largest age cohort and among the most diverse ever in American history, the torch has passed to those born in the last two decades before the new millennium dawned.

The quartet of speakers was composed of Sara Valenzuela, director of external affairs for New York City public advocate Letitia James; Barbara Bush, the CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps and daughter of the former president; Jacob Horowitz, editor-in-chief of Mic News, who served as moderator; and Joelle Gamble, national director of the campus network at the Roosevelt Institute.The event was telecast on C-SPAN, a popular favorite of the youth.

"I've been told to be a cool moderator," Horowitz began, asking, "Should we be using the M-word?" The consensus seemed to be, No. All four were in agreement that so many people cannot be generalized, although each said that the 18-34 year old demo is more optimistic than their elders, which was not challenged by anyone. Nor did it ever come up that the entire premise of naming generations is, for the most part, a tool used by marketing agencies to sell a lifestyle to such a heterogeneous chunk of the populace. Nevertheless, the series of questions Horowitz asked were pierced with the knowledge that the older crowd just doesn't get us.

"There's a real fundamental misunderstanding," Horowitz said. He pointed to the perception that no other generation is as misunderstood -- or as well-educated, according to polling, some of which his crew at Mic News conducted. Their figures show that for young citizens (at least the ones who read Mic, formerly known as Policy Mic), their top foreign and domestic priorities are, respectively, climate change and income inequality. Of course, no one person can represent the entire cohort, as Bush made clear: "There's millions of millennials! I can't speak for everyone," she said.

One major difference between the youth today and their predecessors is encapsulated by the small screens we carry around with us. "We have technology rampantly running through our generation," Valenzuela, the aide to the city public advocate, said. "People are banging their heads against the wall trying to reach us," she said. Gamble, the campus network director, added that this generation is "being disruptive and not trusting institutions" -- a trend that "can be really disconcerting to folks," she said. Bush, who is in charge of a growing cadre of public health volunteers, nearly all of whom are in this demographic, observed that the young'uns nowadays are "more globally connected. We do all have a voice," Bush said, describing this as a big responsibility to use the "huge assets" of that interconnectedness in a positive way.

"What's the secret sauce?" Horowitz asked. "Everyone wants to reach the demo." No one believed any such sauce exists, though perhaps a touch of narcissism and skeptical irony would constitute one of its ingredients. Gamble mentioned how "vertical forms of engagement" simply do not "resonate" with people who either grew up into a horizontal matrix of social networks or were toddlers or schoolkids when the World Wide Web first became widely used. Moving toward the political sphere, Valenzuela, giving an insider perspective, noted that "we're not going to relate to a candidate so much as the issues" a candidate runs on. In these times, "we're watching you," she added, "and we'll tell everyone what you do."

Mentioning the #BlackLivesMatter movement and Occupy, Horowitz wanted to know if the twenty-somethings have the attention span necessary to sustain serious calls for social change. "We look at the world differently from our parents," he said, adding that one of his roles as editor-in-chief at Mic is to ask the staff if a given story is "something you would share with your friends." Aside from virtual activism, Gamble rejoindered, "There are still a lot of folks doing direct action."

The difference is that the interconnected nature of these actions "amplifies" the effect of any one act; for instance, "the emergence of Black Twitter," she added. "There are phases to protests," Bush said. The first involves "the stark image" that galvanizes a whole swathe of the public, and what follows are the decisions "behind closed doors." Later, she summarized her position, saying, "I love policy and I don't love politics, and I think that's okay." Valenzuela believes "we're a more introspective generation," a view that was echoed by one of the questions from the audience, when someone brought up the "insularity" of the peer group under the microscope, a trait he finds "kinda annoying." Other older gents were heard chuckling at this.

After the C-SPAN feed shut off, at least one audience member in the packed room took away from the event a sense that the talk was a tad Americentric. Jenn Gottesfeld works for Global Health Corps. She believes it is critically important, since we now live "in a globalized" time and "policies here and abroad affect all of us," to broaden the conversation beyond the confines of the United States. Without resort to hyperbole, this generation does not know borders. And that seems like the way it should be.