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Detroit Free Press   September 23, 2011


Will any candidate rescue the Millennials?

By Stephen Henderson


Here's a fun fact for the opening of the Michigan GOP Leadership conference today on Mackinac Island: The recession is crushing young people. Across the country, one in five young adults are living in poverty, their employment levels are at the lowest level since the 1940s, and last year saw a 25% jump in the number residing with their parents.
Want an idea to wrap a presidential campaign around for 2012? How about something that can get Millennials, the generation born between 1982-2003, out of dad's basement and into a meaningful career?
Unfortunately, it's hard to identify anything being pushed by the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls (two of whom are scheduled to appear at the Mackinac conference) that fits the bill.
Right now, the crowded field is a traveling clown car of candidates. And each joker who steps out seems more flamboyantly ridiculous than the last.
They've argued about Ronald Reagan, and who owns his legacy. They've discussed whether poor people with life-threatening diseases should just die. (Apparent answer: yes.) And they've chided Texas Gov. Rick Perry about HPV vaccines causing retardation.
When jobs come up, they've offered far-right boilerplate lower taxes, less regulation and nothing else.
While there's really nothing wrong with those two ideas, I'm pretty sure unemployed Millennials understand that the conditions threatening to make them our next "lost generation" are more complicated.
Texas, for example, has wonderfully low taxes and so little regulation that they'd let you build a toxic waste dump near a water table. (I'm not making that up. Google Harold Simmons) But Texas also ranks sixth in the nation in the rate of people in poverty and first in people without health insurance.
So while the state led the nation in job creation over the last decade, it's also true that an awful lot of those jobs were low-paying and don't offer benefits.
For Millennials, that's basement city.
I'm focusing on Millennials here first, because they're a gargantuan generation, larger than any other in America. Second, with just 19% of the electorate, they played a key role in the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
Third, according to a new book, Millennial Momentum, by Morley Winograd (a former Michigan Democratic Party chair) and Michael Hais (a former associate professor of political science at the University of Detroit), they could play an even larger role in 2012, when they will make up 25% of eligible voters.
According to folks who study American generations, Millennials are in line to be that once-every-eight-decades generation that shocks the status quo to its foundations and recasts the nation according to its own ideals. Think of the Civil War generation, or the one that fomented the American Revolution.
So the GOP really needs to figure out what this generation is about, and what they want.
A few clues: They're more diverse than ever. They don't want office jobs but badly need meaning in their work.
And they are a strong, "civic" generation, which means they value collective effort and institutions far more than most generations. It also means they'll leverage powerful social networks and nongovernmental institutions for collective good.
Hard for me to filter that profile through anyone in the GOP field right now. But it's early. And President Obama, who captured Millennial energy in 2008, now faces a haunting enthusiasm gap.
This generation might be there for the taking but someone in the Republican field will have to reach for it.

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