Guest Blogger

Please Welcome to the Table...Generation Y

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 14, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement
Tags: LGBT, LGBT youth, organizations, paypal, task force, technology, web 2.0

Editors' note: Greg Varnum is the Acting Executive Director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition.

Brace yourselves, the largest living generation is lurking in our midst and they might not be who you think they are - let alone operate the way you think they do (or should). The bad news is that our movement, with some exceptions, is missing the boat when it comes to utilizing the opportunity to engage these folks. The good news is that several organizations, including National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC), are prioritizing this issue and preparing to help those who are interested.

First - a disclaimer - I am a card carrying member of Generation Y aka a Millennial. So my views on this topic are admittedly close to home and may be seen as bias. However, since the same is true when I write about LGBTQ issues, I hope you'll accept that if anything, my Millennial status gives me a unique perspective on this topic.

Now, back to the topic at hand... just what is a Millennial? Generally speaking Millennials, members of Generation Y, are defined as anyone born between 1980 and 9/11/01. According to a 2003 Harris Interactive poll, we earn a total annual income of about $211 billion, spend approximately $172 billion per year (these numbers have certainly gone up since 2003) and strongly influence many adult consumer-buying trends. We have also faced a greater degree of direct corporate marketing since birth than any other generation in history.

As a Millennial, I cannot recall living without a computer around; never used anything but tapes, CDs and MP3's; never experienced "The AIDS Epidemic;" have always had access to 24-hour news; had a cell phone before I had a driver's license; have had more "online" friends than "offline" friends since I was twelve; and have always lived in an era where hundreds of LGBT organizations were working on my behalf (thank you for that by the way).

Corporate America is experiencing a transformation as a result of Generation Y entering the workplace and adult consumer groups. This transformation has already begun to trickle down to social justice movements. The impact of YouTube, Facebook, MoveOn.org, and blogging can already be felt within all of our organizations. The Obama and Dean campaigns have shown us that this transformation is hitting the political world as well.

So how is the LGBT movement faring in all of this? In this Millennial leader's opinion, not so well I'm afraid. When I talk with leaders in our movement about their efforts in working with today's youth, I hear a range of reactions. However, comments like "waste of money and time," "too difficult to engage," "apathetic," "tomorrow's leaders," and "too inexperienced" often come up.

Sometimes I hear the unintentionally condescending "tomorrow's leaders," with which a well-intentioned movement leader can summarily dismiss and overlook the reality that young people are in fact leading today. When I talk to young people about their interactions with our movement's organizations comments like "waste of time and money," "too difficult to engage," "egotistical," "disrespectful," and "not focused on my issues" often come up.

As a movement we simply cannot afford to avoid involving and engaging Generation Y. If you have a strategy for how we can achieve success and leave today's largest living generation out of the mix - I'd be interested in seeing it. If you feel our current strategies have this generation in this mix...well...someone apparently forgot to tell us.

I've noticed that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers seem to have a much more positive assessment of the success of their Millennial engagement than do those who they say they're engaging. Much of this overly optimistic assessment sounds strikingly similar to the remarks leaders of color heard (and some continue to hear) many years ago - at least based on the experiences they've shared with me.

Shortly after I started my position as Acting Executive Director of NYAC I had the opportunity to meet with a few different groups of LGBT youth leaders. When I asked them what they thought of our movement's national efforts to involve them, almost all of these groups responded with puzzled looks.

Perhaps one response I got was the most telling. An affluent lesbian young adult told me, "I don't trust the national organizations because they seem to try and keep me out of the loop." She explained that because she often got "action urgently needed" messages via email and never text message, she often didn't see them until days after the fact. It had never occurred to her that national organizations didn't even have access to text message blasting services. She pointed to text messages she got from MoveOn.org, Obama's campaign, NORML and Rock the Vote as evidence that clearly someone out there knows how to do it.

I also heard one young gay male, who had access to a pool of money I was hoping to get invested in an organization I was helping, explaining that he wouldn't do so because they didn't accept donations via PayPal. He told me that with how often he changes banks to get the best interest rates, PayPal was the only method he used to manage donations. To my shock the other tech geeks at the table, all about my age (and making ridiculously more money than I am or probably ever will), all nodded in agreement. Here I thought I was a trendy techno geek - apparently not.

Tech preferences aren't the only generational difference in our movement, though. Look at the letters that ask their recipient to give to an organization "because so many of us could have benefited from an organization like this being around when we were young," some of them unwittingly being read by people who are younger than the organization is. Or the proliferation of organizations founded by young activists that have similar missions to others nearby, founded because Facebook said no such organization already existed. Our movement has some gaps to bridge.

"Tomorrow's leaders" are here today - and they want to know what they can do to get involved. The LGBT movement, largely based on Baby Boomer and Traditionalists strategies and led by Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, seems unprepared for this new wave of activists and donors. That is why the board at NYAC has decided to shift gears a bit and focus on building the capacity of the LGBTQ youth movement. That includes helping organizations that have never uttered the words Web 2.0, let alone developed a Web 2.0 strategy, come to terms with how to move past their aggravations in working with "tomorrow's leaders" and harness the amazing potential this massive pool of individuals bring to the table.

By the way, before I get an inbox full of reactions, I'll be the first to admit that the generation gap needs to be addressed by the younger generation as well. Any intern that asks me who Harvey Milk was and then insists they know how to win equality is going to experience one of my lovely LGBT history lectures. Lectures I've had the privilege of receiving from a variety of leaders who have paved the path before me - something for which I can never thank them enough.

Many of us are committed to making sure that our movement doesn't fall further behind other progressive movements and the right wing (who - I'm sad to admit - is doing a better job at Millennial integration than we are). We're working to develop a middle-of-the-road approach to solving this generation gap. We need our movement's other leaders to take notice and begin the process to truly work with - and not just for - today's youth. Together we can ensure that in ten years, we won't be an aging movement falling behind as "tomorrow's leaders" take their skills and PayPal accounts elsewhere.

Stay tuned to Bilerico and NYAC's web site - www.nyacyouth.org - for more on what can be done to properly welcome Generation Y to the table.


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Robert Ganshorn | August 15, 2008 2:57 AM

Greg,

Thank you for saying something that much needs saying. All people of every age have something to teach us and we need to be willing learners. Starting my own business at 26 I remember what it was like to be professionally treated as a lightweight because of my relative youth. I do think that you make an excellent point about our lack of computer ability when compared to you. Starting on a manual typewriter must have retarded me...

Wow. A few interesting asides:

We've had more complaints about using PayPal for our donations than anything else in the history of Bilerico Project. Most users don't trust the company, complain of the exorbitant fees they charge both user and recipient, and the lack of regulatory power since they're not a bank. Most of the complaints have been of the liberal variety - claiming that supporting a "monopoly" like PayPal reduces quality and supports transferring jobs overseas.

And "I don't trust the national organizations because they seem to try and keep me out of the loop." by not sending her a text message instead of an e-mail? That seems like a way to nit-pick, honestly. The majority of orgs use e-mail because it's the most popular form of communication. While I understand text messaging's use - and applaud the fact that orgs are using it to reach even more folks - complaining that the orgs are trying to keep someone out of the loop by e-mailing them seems, well, stupid. Obviously they're not trying to keep her out of the loop or they wouldn't have e-mailed her! Instead, since most orgs have e-mail addresses in their databases, but NOT phone numbers, it would seem that they are trying to reach the most people possible.

It would be wise to include both methods in outreach attempts or action alerts, but to claim that it's a conspiracy to keep Generation Y "out of the loop" by not text messaging or not using PayPal is a way to explain the inaction on behalf of a lot of the members of Gen Y.

The fact remains that the MAJORITY of Gen Y folks are NOT politically engaged. Study after study after study has proven this. (It could have something to with the age range - you can be Gen Y and have been born Sept 1, 2001. That would make you 7 years old, currently - talk about the youth vote! LOL) To be a Gen Y you have to be under 28 years old. So out of the 20 year gap, only half are able to vote. While 15 or 16 year olds can obviously reply to an action alert (send e-mail, call the company, whatever), many political campaigns and orgs focus on target groups that vote, give money and don't need a permission slip.

I know this sounds harsh, but it always peeves me. Gen Y is no different from Gen X or Gen Z or A, B, C or D. Each generation thinks the preceding "just doesn't get" them, that they're smarter than the others, and that life is a conspiracy to tear them down. It's part of the growing up process. Just the other day, another member of my generation told me, "I'll be damned. Our parents were right. Experience does matter sometimes."

Bil,

I agree that PayPal presents some challenges. However, that doesn't change that a large group of people who are not as interested in corporate governance use it as a preferred way of tracking all of their online transactions.

I disagree that Gen-Y is like every generation that has come before. I also disagree that every generation that has come before is just like every other generation.

Also, I disagree that every generation is the same as the one that came before it. To say that the change Baby Boomers brought had nothing to do with their differences from Traditionalists is a rather poor analysis. I think it's that mentality which has brought us to where we are today. If it had not been for the influence of Gen-X on our movement we wouldn't have adopted email as quickly as we did. The same can be said about text messaging and Gen-Y. I do agree that there is no real conspiracy to keep Gen-Ys out of the loop - and I pointed this out to this lesbian. However, I think your analysis is oversimplified and to be honest actually helps make my argument that our movement's leaders are in a state of denial. =-)

However, if you believe that email is still the most popular means of communication - than you are dismissing the preferred communication styles of most Gen-Ys. This sounds similar to the arguments we heard about organizations using postal mail over email because it's still the preferred form of communication. Is Bilerico doing any direct postal mail pieces anytime soon? I doubt it. Looks like perhaps those fans of postal mail were a bit too quick to judge the popularity of email. I believe the same is true of people who are making comments on text messaging.

As far as the studies about political involvement by Gen-Y - this is something I'm getting a little tired of hearing about. I've read many of those reports and there were so many flaws with how they were conducted. Phone bank surveys being used with a generation that largely only have cell phones - which are not included in survey phone banking - being just one of those problems. If you want proof that folks in Gen-Y are just as engaged as anyone else - I suggest looking at the Obama camp. The problem isn't that Gen-Y doesn't want to be engaged - it's not their style of engaging in politics doesn't seem to be welcome or recognized. A point underlined by the content in your reply.

Sorry to say it - but your reply is the sort of comments I hear all of the time that causes me to shake my head in disappointment. Many in our movement - it appears that this includes yourself - have a lack of understanding or interest in understanding that every generation is different and we're missing a huge opportunity by continuing our current state of denial.

Here are some additional resources you may want to check out:
- "Youth to Power" by Mike Connery
- "Millennial Leaders: Success Stories From Today's Most Brilliant Generation Y Leaders" by Bea Fields, Scott Wilder, Jim Bunch, and Rob Newbold
- FutureMajority.com
- http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/worklife/12/26/cb.generation/index.html
- http://www.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2005-11-06-gen-y_x.htm
- http://www.employeeevolution.com/archives/2008/05/23/10-ways-generation-y-will-change-the-workplace/

I agree a lot with what Bil said (is email out? Really? Really?), except for the part about youth being proven to not care (thanks for linking those studies, Bil).

I mean, I thought youth caring about everything and agitating was a stereotype?

One of the major problems with working with those orgs though is that they're just that: orgs. They're businesses first, a lot of the time, or at least they act like that. And for some reason they're falling behind other liberal orgs in working with the youth.

I'm on the older end of the Millenial spectrum, so I can remember life before computers. Hell, I didn't even have a cell phone till I was 18. Yes, I did own a pager in high school :)

But I digress. I agree with a lot of what you say here. Especially about both sides working to bridge the gap. We have to know our history in order to move forward.