The Drivers of Change

A Conversation with Kristen Soltis Anderson

Young people have always set the fads of the day but they also introduce significant change to society. Kristen Soltis Anderson believes the next generation is about more than selfies: They're not beholden to partisan lines and they expect data-driven and responsive government.

Kristen Soltis Anderson on the set of Meet the Press. (William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

Kristen Soltis Anderson is author of The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up).  Anderson spoke recently with Hannah Abney, director of communications at the Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, editor of The Catalyst, about the generation’s impact on American culture, economics, and government. A millennial herself, Time named the Republican pollster one of “30 Under 30 Changing the World.”

Your book examines how young Americans are driving cultural and technological changes that will affect politics and policy. Let’s start with how millennials are affecting American culture. How are they doing that? 

Millennials are having a huge impact. Whether it is the biggest celebrities, shows that make an impact, or the big changes of how we consume information, so much of this is being driven by millennials. And you see this in terms of what society values and prizes.

In my book, I use the “selfie”’ as a metaphor that starts off as something silly, something that people do and people roll their eyes at, and the next thing you know, the President is taking a selfie with other heads of state. It has always been the case that young people are often at the cultural forefront, our driving force. That is the case today. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Denmark Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt, and President Barack Obama pose for a selfie. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)
It has always been the case that young people are often at the cultural forefront, our driving force. That is the case today. 

You write about cities like Denver, Dallas, and Washington. What impact is this cultural change going to have on our cities, where so many college-educated young adults live?

Cities are where culture is spread and where people live in tighter quarters. They are exposed to people from different walks and ways of life. For millennials, that is part of the draw of cities. They want to live where you are exposed to all sorts of different influences. 

This means there will be issues that are particularly salient for young people that don’t cut along the same national party lines. Municipal issues, like how you get good public transit, are one example. These things are not necessarily your classic “left/right” or “big government/small government” issues.

Public transit in Dallas (uplift_the_world / Shutterstock.com)

You will have a lot of millennials interested in how you have good government.  They will want to know such things as whether you are using data effectively.

Cities are, in many ways, at the forefront of this open data revolution in government. You can take a little bit of information here and there and fix things like potholes. Millennials will expect this sort of action from government. They will want a responsive government. 

[Millennials] will want to know such things as whether you are using data effectively. ... You can take a little bit of information here and there and fix things like potholes. Millennials will expect this sort of action from government. They will want a responsive government. 

How do you see the millennial generation, and even the generation millennials are raising, driving government to change to meet their needs?

Government will need to change because people will demand it be more responsive. We are seeing a level of dissatisfaction that is countered on the private sector side with consumers providing feedback through technologies. People can use the Internet to buy products and access services in ways you couldn’t before. That has really increased competition. 

The private sector has been grappling with some of these challenges. This is now the norm for the millennial generation and their children. When you get out of an Uber, you can rate the driver. When you go to a restaurant, you are able to quickly post a Yelp review. When you buy a product on Amazon and don’t like it, you can rate it right there.

In government, that sort of customer feedback and responsiveness is going to be an expectation for millennials and whoever comes next. They will need that to become satisfied with the services they are receiving. 

Technology is enabling these things to happen. Take, for instance, social media. It is so important not because it’s technology, but it’s about personal connection, information, and stories. It is how you contact the world.

This is all about responsiveness, not technology. Technology is just enabling accountability. That is how technology is changing our expectations for the future. 

Is there a historical comparison for this generation?

I don’t have a good answer. Along with boomers, there was the Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, and Gen Xers. Each was a unique product of the time in which they were raised. 

What makes millennials unique and even unified, even though the generation includes someone born in 1980 and someone born in 1999, is the Internet and the level of connectivity that has become the norm. We came of age as the Internet was coming of age. The level of global connection and personal access through technology has become standard. We haven’t known a world other than this. 

Is there any conventional wisdom about millennials that could be debunked?

Absolutely. The Pew Research Center asked adults of all ages: which generation do you identify with? For people that are technically millennials, less than half are willing to identify themselves as millennials. 

It is hard to blame them. If you look at any trend pieces about this generation, they are usually negative and usually make the case that millennials are lazy and entitled. Or, there are all sorts of things wrong with them and they don’t know how good they have it. 

The biggest myth I would like to debunk is that millennials are lazy and entitled. Quite the contrary. Their generation faces enormous obstacles. 

They are coming of age at a time when economically they are facing huge obstacles to success. They have all sorts of student loan debt. They want to make commitments like buying a home and starting a family. Even that seems a little shaky and uncertain. So, they have to work very hard to get what they have these days. It is not being handed to them on a silver platter. 

At the same time, this is not a self-absorbed or entitled generation. Overwhelmingly, this is a mission-driven generation. They want to start businesses that have dual bottom lines, where they are not just making a profit but they are making a difference. They want to start non-profits in their career and have an impact on the world around them. 

This is a mission-driven generation. They want to start businesses that have dual bottom lines, where they are not just making a profit but they are making a difference. They want to start non-profits in their career and have an impact on the world around them. 

I always push back against this notion that millennials are primarily interested in themselves and don’t care about the world around them. Because of the information access, this generation is aware of problems both globally and locally in a way that other generations may not have been. 

This is what frustrates me most when people talk about what millennials want or behave. These trend pieces focus on a small subset of millennials who work at extremely well-funded tech companies or hip media companies where people are hover-boarding around the office and all get free snacks.

That is not the appearance of most millennials. Most are not graduating from elite institutions and going to work at super-hedged startups in Silicon Valley. 

Even if they go to a four-year school, they are taking longer than four years. And they are not going to work in some sexy industry. They are just really working hard to build a career in an economy where the odds have been stacked against them from the moment they graduated from high school or college. 

Speaking of the economy, what message do millennial leaders who believe in private markets and the global economy have to offer?

You are right: there is this big tension. We are seeing this economically and culturally, where change is happening really fast. There may be a lot of winners, but some people have lost. The jobs they did no longer exist. If they do, they may no longer be in the U.S. or they might not be done by people. 

Culturally, there has been a big change with an acceptance of many lifestyles. People are raising questions about to what extent the family is the central unit that we are empowering to address problems and create stability in society.

There are tradeoffs with everything. For a lot of millennials, they are excited when they see technological change that makes their lives easier or their products cheaper or better and more accessible. Of course, there are folks on the losing end of that bargain. They had a job that has now become obsolete. 

For a lot of millennials, they are excited when they see technological change that makes their lives easier or their products cheaper or better and more accessible. Of course, there are folks on the losing end of that bargain. They had a job that has now become obsolete. 

For a millennial, this can mean learning a new skill such as coding. But for somebody in their 50s, they are coming to the end of their career and their job has been taken away. It is hard to say to that person, “Gosh, you ought to learn how to code and you will get a job.”

I don’t want to say we have this generational conflict, but the pace of change in America and the world is rapid. The message needs to be that both sides need to understand that there is good and bad in what is happening. For millennials who are thrilled about change and love that they can now get an Uber, there are industries that are being disrupted as a result. That can cause pain. 

Millennials may be the generation most excited about the change. But neglecting the downsides in some ways is what has led us to this populist moment. This enthusiasm for change, particularly from the left, has created a backlash in Donald Trump, who says not all of this change has created winners and we need to fix that. 

How do millennial leaders who believe in an open and welcoming society speak to Americans who prefer a more isolationist approach?

This is a really great question because this troubles me the most when I am pulling data about millennials. A great deal of data suggests there is an openness on the part of millennials to an economic message that values markets. But when it comes to America’s role in the world, that is where I see really clear lines being drawn.

At this point, millennials are not convinced that American strength and projecting American leadership around the world is necessarily a great thing. Very often, millennials will be ready to tell you that they view American engagement abroad over the last 60 years as being troublesome and perhaps not the right path. 

There has not been a case made to this generation about the reason American strength does lead to greater peace and stability. Nor is there a case being made that there are dividends to America being strong and playing a role that keeps chaos at bay. 

Overwhelmingly, the data suggests millennials have not heard this message. They have not been convinced that America has a strong leadership role to play. Those who hold that view need to start recognizing that, if the argument isn’t made, this is a big generational shift. 

In some ways, the world seems smaller because of technology and social media. Do you think that plays into the shift that you are discussing? Or what is the core issue?

The core issue that is driving the way millennials think about America in the world is that, on one hand, you have this Bernie Sanders message about what domestic policy ought to look like. That message tries to make it sound like other countries are so much better off and more advanced than us on things like health care and maternity leave. So, gosh, isn’t America backward for not having these policies. 

On the other hand, you have a real aversion and uncertainty about what do we do with terrorists like ISIS. For a lot of older millennials, who remember September 11th and the response we needed to keep America safe, they aren’t necessarily convinced that we did keep America safe. That argument hasn’t been made to them convincingly. 

What millennials are often hearing is a message that says America is not perfect, which it is not, with a message that says America is lagging behind all these other countries and who are we to tell the world how to do things. There also is a question about what American military strength can and should do to secure peace.

What millennials are often hearing is a message that says America is not perfect, which it is not, with a message that says America is lagging behind all these other countries and who are we to tell the world how to do things.

Millennials are out-of-the-box thinkers and, in a good sense, more disruptive. How will their approach change how we practice politics? 

We are going to see the beginning of a decline in the partisan and ideological clashes that at times seem not to die. Millennials are overwhelmingly identifying as independents. They don’t want everything from column A and they don’t want everything from column B.  

Being in one political party or the other, and identifying with one label or another, sounds like it comes with a lot of baggage. It means you are associating yourself with positions you may not necessarily hold.

For a lot of millennials, arguments and language like “big government is bad” seems unusual. If government is the best way to solve a problem, then, great, let’s have them solve the problem. But, if government is not the best way to solve a problem, and non-profits or markets can handle it instead, let’s have them handle it. 

Millennials are very pragmatic and less interested in this government-is- good/government-is-bad debate. Instead, they would prefer people talking about whether something works or doesn’t work, and can you prove this works or doesn’t work? 

They are interested in debating how we most effectively achieve outcomes, rather than viewing things like big and small government as the ends within themselves. Those are merely a means to an end.

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