Obama Generation Continues to Make Waves

Generation Y begins to show sure—if just a bit different—leadership.


Since millennials' political consciousness was forged in the divisive climate of the Bush years, it's little surprise that many were drawn to politics long before they heard of Barack Obama. Ava Lowery, a 19-year-old native of Alexander City, Ala., has been making short antiwar films for five years. She was first inspired into activism by news of the invasion of Iraq. Seeing television footage of bombs dropping, she says, "I thought, 'Surely those aren't all military targets. Surely there are some civilians dying.' " Shortly after that, she launched an antiwar blog; a year later, she made her first film.

One of her videos, which showed a montage of wounded Iraqi children to the song "Jesus Loves Me," has received more than a million hits.

"When I did that video, I got death threats," Lowery says. That hasn't stopped her. Earlier this year, Lowery, now a freshman at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, directed and produced a full-length documentary on three Iraq war veterans returning home.

For many millennials, though, it was Obama who inspired them to give not just their votes but months of their lives. Camilla Ihenetu, 25, hadn't been actively involved in previous elections, but Obama's policies, story, and message, she says, persuaded her. She was particularly struck by his desire to reassert America's standing in the world, she says, something made more personal when she attended graduate school in Spain in 2006. "His message for hope and change was so profound, it really pulled me in," says Ihenetu. She volunteered with Obama's campaign for more than a year, working her way up from intern to the Colorado state women's vote coordinator. She's now a special assistant to the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior.

While the election highlighted a progressive streak among youths, young Democrats are hardly the only ones visibly engaged. At the other end of the political spectrum, youths are fired up by their opposition to Obama—whether because they disagreed with him from the beginning or because they're disappointed with choices his administration has made.

One particular hot-button issue for millennials has been abortion. And despite leaning left elsewhere, on it generation Y drifts right: One recent Pew Research Center poll found that 48 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 thought abortion should be illegal, a proportion on par with those 65 and older. Only 41 percent of Americans ages 30 to 64 thought the same. In fact, many young people are so active in trying to get their antiabortion message across that Washington's annual March for Life is basically "a huge youth rally," quips Campbell. "The joke is that the average age is somewhere around 21."

Confident and impatient. In a Republican Senate campaign that is heating up in Colorado, more than two thirds of the volunteers are under 35. The politician they're fighting for, 31-year-old Ryan Frazier, is on the cusp of generation Y. But his age, he says, shouldn't preclude him from running for Senate. "Just because you've been around for a while doesn't mean that somebody who has the capability, has merit, is willing to work hard, is innovative, cannot achieve and cannot do the job as well," says Frazier, currently a City Council member in Aurora, near Denver. Frazier's attitude points to a characteristic that millennials seem to share: A confident bunch, they're impatient with the traditional structures of seniority.

That's clear in politics, where upstarts like Frazier or Ihenetu don't let their age get in the way of their ambitions, but it's also becoming clear in the corporate world. Whereas baby boomers might have put years into a company before asking for perks or even deciding to leave, millennials give months, if not weeks. That makes sense. Millennials grew up being told they could do anything. And many of them saw their parents unhappy with their jobs or even being laid off after putting years of their lives into the same company or industry, says Lisa Orrell, a millennials expert who is writing a book about how the generation can lead effectively. The result, though, is that companies are losing millions of dollars because of turnover and worrying over how to retain young talent long enough to move them into management positions.