Confessions of a Jaded Millennial
Years of vapid leadership are souring my once-optimistic generation on electoral politics. So we’re finding better ways to make a difference.
The first time I was eligible to cast a vote for president, I cast it for a Black man. It was 2012, and mine was among the votes that secured a second term in the White House for Barack Obama. It was quite a time to be alive.
Back then, I was 21 and felt a sense of optimism that, in retrospect, seems laughable. American politics felt so very different a decade ago.
During those better times, bipartisanship in Congress appeared an achievable goal. Sure, Republicans were infamously united in their unsuccessful efforts to sink the Affordable Care Act, but there were also many examples of Republicans crossing the aisle to enact a Democrat’s agenda. It would have been hard to imagine that group — even the nascent Tea Party faction — going so far as to, say, back an insurrection or align behind a candidate as overtly racist as Donald Trump.
As a Black, queer millennial and a Penn undergrad, I’d come to see conservatives as people with a “difference of political opinion,” not individuals who’d act in bad faith to erase my identity via “Don’t Say Gay” laws. When I participated in student government, respectful debates with undergraduate conservatives were the norm. My debate opponents didn’t hurl conspiracy theories; my teammates didn’t threaten to automatically cancel anyone who exhibited the slightest conservative viewpoint. We were people who spoke from lived experiences who could civilly agree to disagree. Although neither side was perfect, it would have been hard to imagine our current state of politics back then.
Yet 10 years later, here we are: investigating an insurrection; fighting culture wars over teaching race, sexuality and gender in our classrooms; and bucking against entrenched political partisanship on every. damn. issue. It’s enough to make someone, even someone like me, lose faith — to stop trusting the process. And it’s happening to lots of millennials. You know us — the generation whose optimism and civic engagement spawned a cottage industry’s worth of books and think pieces about how we were going to change the political landscape for good.
I realized that I was becoming — gasp — politically jaded on March 1, 2022. I was watching Joe Biden, Obama’s former VP, give his first State of the Union address as Commander in Chief.
Biden had inherited a White House previously occupied by a hot-headed billionaire and his circle of white-collar criminals, white supremacists and co-conspirators, all invested in, the record will show, nothing less than upending our democracy. The civil unrest that took place during the Trump presidency was fueled by a racial reckoning that deepened the partisan fissures the 2016 election exposed. Following the police murder of George Floyd, calls for law enforcement to be held accountable for such acts influenced political campaigns on the left and spurred vehement counter-responses from the right.
On the left, those calls manifested as the movement to “Defund the Police,” an idea that’s been twisted by opponents but that ultimately wants governments to reimagine public safety, to divert funding away from traditional policing — the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later type that’s led to so many tragic viral videos — and toward social/community-based services and resources that might more effectively defuse and resolve situations that have too often ended in Black deaths. Some on the right find this idea polarizing and extreme, but is it really any more radical than, say, the free-love/anti-war movement of the 1960s?
Biden was helped to his win in 2020 by a coalition that advocated loudly for a different way of policing. But during his SOTU address, he chose to betray the progressives who elected him for an instance of performative bipartisanship. It was a cringey moment — one I will never forget.
“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police,” Biden said to roaring applause as cameras panned to Republicans Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, who actually gave him a standing ovation. “Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training.”
Biden had taken the bait: This was his attempt to quell far-right rhetoric that had cast Democrats as a lawless, soft-on-crime party heading into the midterm elections. And with that line, Biden sent a signal to Democrats across the country that they need no longer scrutinize the ways policing was causing problems in their communities. After nearly two years of Black Lives Matter discourse and police reform as a major plank of political campaigns, Biden declared that it was time to move on.
Not long after that, the scaling-back hit Philadelphia. On March 30th, Councilmember Cherelle Parker, backed by some of her elected Democratic colleagues, proposed a plan to increase police spending in Philadelphia beyond the $758 million the department already receives (by far the largest line item in the city’s spending plan). After attempts to interrogate and flatten the police budget following the 2020 racial uprisings, it appears that Philly isn’t invested in doing so anymore.
And just like that, a generation of young voters who were energized in the Obama era and practiced resilience during the Trump era are becoming disillusioned in the Biden era.
As a voter who’s been politically engaged during these periods, I felt duped by Biden. But I also felt betrayed by the system — by the promise we were sold. The election of Barack Obama gave me hope that voting for the right leaders would help move society forward. All politicians are imperfect, but I once believed it was at least possible to sort the bad apples from the less ripe ones. Trump’s emergence reinforced this concept in real time — he was the wrong leader, and it was up to my generation to replace him with someone better. It felt, early on, that we had. Biden is certainly better than Trump. And yet … I’m coming to the realization that electoral politics isn’t the answer. And it’s not just because of what’s happening on the national level.
Promises of progress and change have been thrown around in Philadelphia, but has any of that fundamentally materialized here? Liberals and progressives dominate City Council and the Mayor’s Office — yet we remain the poorest big city in America, one dogged by an endless cycle of political corruption and federal indictments. So where does that leave millennials, the city’s largest voting bloc, at a time when it feels like politicians are powerless to move the needle on the issues that matter to us?
I’m finding that other millennials are asking the same question.
“Why did the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium have to step in to get largely Black neighborhoods COVID-19 vaccines?” asks 34-year-old community organizer Arika Gold-Bustos. “Why would I trust in a system that was not made for me or mine when I can trust in community care?” It’s a question a lot of people were asking of the public-health infrastructure throughout the pandemic. Other millennials are questioning the entire political system — with nods to self-determination along the way.
“This is the slow death of an empire. We just were arrogant enough to think the rules of the past didn’t apply,” says Conor, a 30-year-old writer who asked to not be identified by last name, speaking of “the many liberal and left politicians who have not done enough about the worsening conditions for Philadelphia citizens.” In the absence of effective politicians, Conor is seeking more direct ways to effect change: “We’ll have to rely on one another and on more anarchistic ideas of running small-scale communities as things get worse.”
While “anarchistic ideas” might seem radical, what he’s talking about is self-reliance, the idea that the government — slow-moving, bureaucratic, corrupt — isn’t the answer to many, or maybe any, of our problems. Is that extreme? Some young people argue that government corruption makes change through electoral politics impossible.
“When you see people claiming they support the working class and want to bring bold change, but then they’re benefiting from the same corruption they say they want to address, it raises some questions,” says Zane Knight, a 26-year-old activist who previously backed progressive candidates in Philly. “Between the corruption of our system and elected officials and the lack of urgency shown by so many, it feels like it’s impossible to get anything meaningful done electorally.”
The data back up the idea of waning political engagement and heightened distrust in elected officials among younger voters. A 2021 millennial and Generation Z survey from Deloitte found that millennials had the most consistent growth in political/social pessimism since 2018. This reinforces previous research on millennials (the generation born between 1981 and 1996) throughout the years that shows them to have very little confidence in major institutions. Even more telling is a 2019 Pew Research Center report that found Generation Z “looks a lot like millennials on key social and political issues.” Let the 2020 presidential election serve as a warning: In 2020 — an election that saw turnout increase nationally across the board over 2016 — turnout among Pennsylvania’s 18-to-24-year-old voters was flat. Sure, young people are historically less likely to vote than older ones, but consider that a 2020 Politico poll found that compared to the population at large, a much higher percentage of Gen Z voters saw their Biden support as a vote against Trump rather than one for Biden.
As a member of the generation so many have praised for its engagement, I find this devastating — like an identity crisis. But is this trend — millennials and even Gen Z becoming cynical about politics — unique (you know we love to be considered unique), or simply an echo from the past?
“I’m not sure millennials are any more jaded than any other generation, but it certainly makes sense that as people hit the life stage millennials are at now — adulthood, parenthood — their ability to dedicate so much of their time to activism and organizing may wane,” says attorney Jill Filipovic, author of the 2020 best-seller OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind. “Millennials have lived through several major economic upheavals, devastating wars of choice, multiple presidential elections in which the candidate who won the most votes was not the victor, and, most recently, an attempted coup.”
I ask Filipovic about the often-romanticized notion that boomers transitioned from ’60s radicals to norm-y bastions of the status quo.
“I think we fundamentally misunderstand the boomer trajectory,” Filipovic says. “It was never the case that they were a generation of radicals who become Reagan conservatives; it was that a minority of boomers were progressive activists, and those boomers made a tremendous cultural impact. But the generation was always split between liberals and conservatives — and conservatives won at the polls, even as the liberals won the culture.”
Although it feels as if liberals have won the culture wars this time around, too — witness the mainstream advocacy around LGBTQIA issues and policies inspired by #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter — the question remains: How can younger generations keep their progressive fever alive during a crappy time in politics? Just because millennials have become less enthusiastic about ushering the next empty suit into office doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in public service. But this does feel like a potential inflection point for a generation. Are we witnessing the disengagement of the millennial generation? Or is it something else? There are, it seems, reasons for optimism.
A 2022 report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that “young adults participate in politics and their communities far more than they are given credit for — and in ways that often go unrecognized.” In Philly, a lot of “unrecognized” civic engagement can be found in the growing field of mutual aid projects, grassroots co-ops, nonpartisan civic organizations, and activist groups. These are the kinds of efforts where people can make a real, tangible difference immediately.
“Politics is not solely about running for office,” says Monet Reilly, co-director of New Leaders Council PHL, a nonprofit that trains younger leaders, at no cost, on how to be more civically engaged across the region. “We train our fellows about how to make an impact in their community through various means, methods and advocacy that cross over into political action. Millennials are now at the point of their careers where we are in higher leadership roles and recognize how we can use our power and resources to promote and implement change outside of politics.”
Although some millennials are still finding ways to make a difference by becoming more nonpartisan — a step away from direct electoral politics — others are choosing to divest altogether.
“I felt the process of begging public officials to do their jobs to support the community they represented was the first big blow to my support for politicians,” says actress and educator Aurica Hurst, 31, a community organizer who regularly attended City Council meetings. She says she’s shifted her organizing strategies to encourage mutual aid projects and citizen rights advocacy: “I believe in teaching the youth to challenge the status quo.”
As I reflect on my own journey of finding meaning outside of electoral politics, I’ve also found more optimism (and solace) in decentering politicians. Although I’ve never missed a chance to cast a vote since I was first able to in 2010 — and plan to never stop voting — my days of waiting for leaders to step up to the plate and save the day are over. In a town where I’ve seen everyday citizens like COVID physician/hero Ala Stanford, sanitation worker Terrill “Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler, and the late housing activist Jennifer Bennetch outdo city government in caring for our most marginalized, I’d love for my generation to invest its energy and dollars in civic efforts like those rather than political campaigns.
In times like this, I’m reminded of Black writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s famous words: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Politicians, I’m realizing, are simply masters. We must mobilize beyond their politics to invoke real, genuine change. Rather than trying to “be the change” electorally, just keep doing the damn thing. The change will follow.
Published as “Confessions of a Jaded Millenial” in the June 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.