When Barack Obama was elected to the White House, it was with the help of those voters so often overlooked by politicians: young adults. More under-30 voters turned out than had in a presidential election since 1992. A full two thirds voted for Obama. And then there was the leadership that young people displayed in the campaign itself, from the foot soldiers going door-to-door on up to Jon Favreau, the president's 28-year-old speechwriter.
There's no doubt that Obama inspired their engagement. For many, he still does. Since the election, volunteers who sacrificed sleep and stability on the campaign trail have pivoted to pushing for the White House agenda. "They've been fired up," Washington-based political fundraiser Scott Dworkin, 28, says of his peers. "I don't know if that political bug will go away anytime soon." Of all the friends he has who volunteered for Obama's campaign, Dworkin estimates that even now, with a recession and increasing frustrations over where the Democrats are headed, 80 to 90 percent remain active, either working in the new administration or volunteering for the Democrats.
Still, it's not all about the charismatic commander in chief, and there are many who cringe at the "Generation Obama" label they've been given. It's true that the millennials, broadly categorized as those born between the late 1970s and early 2000s, are generally progressive. In 22 years of surveying Americans about their political attitudes, the Pew Research Center, for example, has found that generation Y is more left-leaning than its elders on issues like affirmative action, immigration, and the appropriate scope of government—and more left-leaning than previous generations were at the same age. But many millennials are getting fired up for the GOP, too. And then there are all of those who are engaging in fields outside of politics.
Commitment to service. What they share regardless of political leaning, experts say, is a hands-on attitude. "These young adults don't tend to want to write the check. They want to be involved," says Colleen Carroll Campbell, author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christ ian Orthodoxy. "They like that feeling of giving back in person."
Experts point to another clear quality shared by many millennials: an altruistic impulse. "They really do want to make the world a better place," says Ron Alsop, author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up, a book about millennials. In one study, the percentage of college freshmen who have volunteered in the past year has climbed steadily in recent years, from 66 percent in 1989 to 95 percent in 2008. Much of that is because millennials are the first for whom community service has been a key to college admissions or even a requirement for high school graduation. For many, that commitment to service has stuck.
Take Sean Hammer. The 23-year-old South Brunswick, N.J., native admits that when he started volunteering in high school, "it was part of the push to get colleges interested in me." Yet it became much more.
Hammer began Princeton University with plans to head to medical school. At Princeton, he started tutoring local students, including a 10th-grade student who couldn't read a single sentence. Now a teacher at a socioeconomically diverse high school on the edge of Trenton, N.J., Hammer says that "med school is kind of on hold." He adds, "A lot of people, when I've told them I'm thinking about how I might become a teacher, I might become a doctor, they're like, 'You're all over the place.' But I see them as being very similar professions. It's all about working closely with other people and trying to make a positive impact."
That's not to say that millennial engagement is confined to community service. Generation Y is a politically active group, experts say. It's true that the youth vote still lags. While 64 percent of all Americans voted in 2008, 51 percent of those under the age of 30 did. But for anyone observing either of the presidential campaigns or, now, the administration, it's clear that young people are hardly on the sidelines.
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.
An upside to all that is generation Y's entrepreneurial streak. Combined with millennials' tech savvy, the same confidence that's irking managers is creating wunderkinder like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg or WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, both 25. "The value system in America says you should be in an office from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, in khaki pants at your cubicle. That's not necessarily effectiveness," says New York City's Maegan Carberry, 29, who left her journalism job for a more patchwork path of blogging for sites like the Huff ington Post, cohosting a radio program for Blog Talk Radio, founding the microblog Truu Confessions, and writing a book on millennial communication. "We want to do things differently."
Like the desire to buck tradition, some millennial qualities can be a double-edged sword. Experts often point out the generation's intense collaborative impulse, born out of years of team projects at school. That's good for building consensus and communities, they say, but can be an obstacle to leadership, which often requires making a quick, firm decision on one's own.
It's no secret where the impulses attributed to generation Y come from. And that includes the confidence and the refusal to settle for anything less than their dreams that create not only millennial entrepreneurs but activists and politicians, too. "They didn't just hatch from pods like this," Orrell says. "People wonder why they got this generation that's kind of saying, 'Well, yeah, we are special.' It's because everyone's been telling them that."
The bigger question is whether millennials can leverage their qualities and become effective leaders. If the young leaders emerging in the civic and corporate worlds alike prove anything, though, it's that their elders shouldn't be worrying. Millennials may work differently from previous generations; they may advocate for different causes; they may even expect respect earlier. But they want to improve the world around them, and, experts say, they have the confidence, and many of the tools, that are needed to do so.