By Thom Little, Ph.D.

Why do young people today seem to be addicted to their iphones or tablets? Why do junior legislators seem intent on bypassing the committee process and the leadership structure? Why are young voters as interested in marching for a cause as they are in voting for a political party? Why do young legislative staffers seem to jump from one job to the next with little interest in building seniority and experience? Why do young legislators post on social media their position on a bill long before it makes to the floor or the results of a closed caucus meeting before it is even adjourned?

These are the kinds of questions that we at the State Legislative Leaders Foundation have been hearing from senior legislative leaders for the last couple of years and we decided it was time to get some answers. Last month, SLLF in conjunction with the University of North Carolina School of Public Policy, hosted “Closing the Generation Gap: Leading and Learning from a New Generation” on the beautiful SAS Campus in Cary, NC. More than thirty legislators and fifty leaders from the corporate community joined a dozen students from UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro and Elon University to explore the values and motivations of those under forty.

Two presentations at this program really honed in on helping the “old fogies” understand these “young whippersnappers”  – “Connected: Understanding How the Under 40’s Generations

Communicate led by Kristen Soltis Anderson of Echelon Insights and “Causes NOT Caucuses: What Moves and Motivates Those Under 40” presented by Abby Kiesa of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Anderson suggested that those under forty could be defined by four key characteristics: 1) they want to define themselves individually, 2) they are cautious about commitment, 3) they are driven by fairness and caring, and 4) they value authenticity. In a similar light, Kiesa offered four “takeaways” about young people relative to civic participation: 1) they bring a diversity of experience and conditions, 2) they are participatory-oriented, 3) they want customized experiences and expectations, and 4) they respond to individual contact.

Now, let’s see how these qualities explain the actions and activities of young people that tend to drive the rest of us nuts!  Just like as teenagers many of us were holed up in our rooms whispering (so our parents could not hear us) with friends on the telephone (it was connected to the wall), these kids are using their phones and social media platforms  to express and even define themselves. (A few years ago, the Arab Spring movement was initiated and sustained on a dating app!) Given that those who came of age during the great recession have seen the failure of our economic, government and religious institutions, it is not surprising that they don’t feel it necessary to abide by the norms and rules that have long defined our institutions.

Further, their diversity of experiences and conditions makes it more difficult for them to identify with the traditional institutions that are defined by our more homogeneous generations. Their desire for authenticity and their “participatory orientation” would explain why they tend to bypass institutions like political parties, committees and sometimes the voting booth for marches, meet ups and protests. They want to make a difference in their neighborhood and their world and feel that traditional institutions and many politicians do not offer the most effective avenue for getting there. I would suggest they want, like all generations, to make their own mark in their own way. They have grown up in a world where media  and markets are tailored to their needs and interests and they expect a government that is just as responsive. (They have no idea what it’s like to wait anxiously for the next episode of their favorite television show to come on one of three networks!)

So… light of all of this, how do you as leaders and policymakers appeal to these “youngins” in order to get their support in the chamber, in the office and in the voting booth? According to Anderson, Kiesa and the young people who spoke at the program, there are some specific steps you can take to reach them. First, because it is where this generation defines itself and communicates, make more effective use of social media platforms. When asked why he robbed banks, Jesse James said, “Because that’s where the money is.” In a similar manner, you need to be on social media, because that’s where the young people are. Second, reach out to them individually and authentically. In 2016, the youngest generation lined up to support the oldest candidate, Bernie Sanders, because they believed he was “who he was,” warts (or age spots!)  and all.

Third, talk to them (not at them) about issues that matter to them–fairness, equality and opportunity. They want and are willing to work for an America (or a Massachusetts or Texas) that provides opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identification or sexual orientation. Talk to them about those issues and they will hear you. Fourth, don’t just talk to them–engage them and give them an opportunity to be involved. As the marches and protests following the Parkland shooting indicate, they do not want to sit on the sidelines– they want to be part of the solutions to whatever ails us as a country. Give them an opportunity to be part of that solution and they will support you. Finally, give them a reason to respect you– they will not respect you simply because you are in a position of power (remember their views on institutions) or just because you are older than they are, BUT, they will respect you if you treat them with respect, listen to them (even if you don’t agree) and offer them a seat at the table where decisions are made.

Now that you know (even if you don’t fully understand) why these “young whippersnappers” do what they do, it is up to you (and us at SLLF) to meet them where they are, engage them and make the most of the talents, ideas and knowledge they possess to make life better for all of us. They are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but as evidenced by recent events, may well be the leaders of today, so we had better buckle up!