My father’s voice echoed in my head as I sat in a session at the Georgia Forward Forum last week. The topic: Millennials and Civic Engagement. I recalled all of the things that had been said about my own Generation X. We were cynics, individualistic, and unlike any generation before; we worked to live, not the other way around. We were a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’.
Admittedly, I have bemoaned millennials and their texting, social frenzied, inability to converse outside the digital arena. What’s wrong with these kids today? But when I pause for a moment, I remember that less than 15 years ago, the same question was being asked of my generation. In fact, as Kristi Tate from the National Conference on Citizenship noted, millennials’ levels of social engagement at this stage in their life is not different from generations before.
Yet age after age, we act like the problem is the people. However, as pointed out by a staff member from the office of Atlanta City Council member Kwanza Hall, when they changed the way they engaged with millennials, they have found that more baby boomers show up, as well as people from other generations, millennials included.
The problem isn’t the people. The problem is the way we ask people to engage. We invite them to be talked at, to sit in meetings where they watch the action and are offered little chance to respond. How can we flip that, asking them to be players instead of spectators? How can we continue to provide meaningful ways for people to meet one another, connect around common interests, and move forward on projects they care about? When we can meet people where they are, give them a piece of the ‘brand’, as Jessyca Holland from C4 noted, then I truly believe we will not only see a change in millennial behavior and other generations, we will also see additional engagement from people of different economic, social, and cultural groups.
Let’s stop blaming generations and start taking lessons from them.