By Thom Little, Ph.D.

What a weekend! What a conference! A few days ago, I had the honor and privilege of spending time with an extraordinarily ordinary group of young people (and some pretty cool older people too!) at SLLF’s 2018 Spring Leadership Forum, “Bridging the Gap: Leading and Learning from a New Generation.” I say they were extraordinary because they were poised, passionate and articulate in explaining their beliefs and values. I say they were ordinary because my experience as a father of two young adults and a professor of many more, tells me that they are not unique among their peers.

As you may glean from the title of the program, the objective of the program was twofold. First, as with all of our programs, we wanted to offer guidance on how state legislative leaders could do their jobs more effectively – in this case, offering advice on how to more effectively lead a younger generation of legislators and voters, making the most of the skills they bring to the table. Second, we wanted to use the program to start an intergenerational conversation so that perhaps, those of us “old fogies” might learn a thing or two from these “young whippersnappers.”

On Friday, March 16, I think we did a pretty good job of achieving the first goal. Insightful presentations by Kristen Soltis Anderson of Echelon Insights and Abby Kiesa of the the Center on Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) helped us understand what moves and motivates this new generation. Further, we had spirited presentations and conversations about appealing to these folks as voters, colleagues and employees. It seems pretty clear that this new generation responds more to passion than party, prefers flexibility to stability and wants to be part of the solutions for whatever ails our nation and states.

On Saturday, the discussions turned toward what we can learn from each other. We started the day  with a lively “intergenerational discussion” featuring seasoned legislators, junior legislators, graduate students and undergraduate students. This is when I got my first glimpse of the extraordinary ordinary university students I mentioned above. Despite the potentially intimidating position of being seated on a stage with senior political leaders in front of an audience of seasoned legislators and lobbyists, these students spoke with honesty, sincerity and confidence (as did their more experienced counterparts of course).

As the father of one of the undergraduate panelists, there was one question from the audience that really caught my attention: “I am sure that you have learned a lot from your parents, but I wonder if you think your parents have learned anything from you?” To which my daughter responded, “Maybe you should ask him!” pointing at me. So, here is my answer.

I have learned a great deal from my daughter and others of her generation. First, people are people, regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation. When my daughter and her friends see a person, they really see a person–they do not define them by their race, sexual orientation or gender identification. The distinctions that have mattered so much to previous generations seem to have melted away for many in this generation. Second, passion is a path to power. While these college students may not possess, at this point, many of the qualities we generally associate with influence (money, position and political experience), they possess a passion for change that is enabling them to find alternate paths to power–witness the impact of the #metoo and gun control movements initiated by young people harnessing social media.

Third, they believe trust is not merited simply by age or position, but can be and should be earned by performance and action. To quote one student, “I respect everyone, unless they give me a reason not to.” Given the recent failures of financial, religious and political institutions that defines their coming of age this failure to automatically grant trust according to post or position seems quite appropriate. Finally, they believe that everyone, regardless of status or position, deserves a place at the “decision making table,” and that further, we all benefit when diverse views and positions are represented.

While extraordinary, they are not perfect. Do they spend too much time on social media? Yes. Are they more liberal than some might prefer? Absolutely. Are they more opinionated and perhaps a bit more independent than us old folks might like? Probably. However, as I listened to them respond to comments and questions from the audience and the other panelists, I became increasingly hopeful about the future of America and the world. It is time to give them a seat at the table and maybe listen to some of the things they have to say because, if we don’t, I suspect they will create their own table and my generation may be the ones left standing.