I’ve got a secret. I’ll share it, but I’m going to ask you not to think less of me.
I’m a Millennial.
Phew. Glad that’s off my chest.
Now, to be fair, I’m on the older side of the generation. This past week, I started my 33rd lap around the sun. And, if you ask my family, you’d probably find unanimity that I was born an old soul, territory that comes, in part, with being the first of many siblings.
So, while the U.S. Census Bureau considers me a “Millennial” — they bookend the generation between 1982 and 2000 — there is significant difference among the individuals so-described.
The youngest Millennials were seven when the first iPhone was introduced; the oldest were 25. Nickleback topped the Top 40 when I graduated high school, while last year’s graduates had (Justin) Bieber Fever. And the dulcet tones of a dial-up modem brought me and my peers onto AOL Instant Messenger; today’s teens can watch their president make major policy announcements on Twitter.
The two ends of the “Millennial” generation demonstrate the pace of technological change. While we may be grouped together, our formative years and experiences are quite different. That isn’t likely to change going forward; tomorrow will be different from today, and that will have an impact on our politics, our economy, and everything.
The well-worn analogy in business literature is the “buggy whip.” When automobiles began their rise, those making implements for horse drawn carriages saw their livelihoods fade away. Not because they weren’t artisans who excelled at their craft, but rather because their craft was no longer needed.
Society today is undergoing much of the same process. Information and news has migrated to online platforms from newsprint. This disrupts the model of traditional media, but also impacts others down the line: paper manufacturers, loggers, and numerous others. Yet it also creates new opportunities. Living in a digital society requires digital devices; it takes people to design the products and program the 1s and 0s that make them operate.
To buy those devices takes money. So where is that coming from? Well, in 1960, Americans spent around 18 percent of their disposable income on food. In 2015, it was about 10 percent. That is in large part due to technology and other breakthroughs creating ways to produce more food out of the same land, lowering the overall cost.
Much of those technological agricultural breakthroughs come from those 1s and 0s. The Instant Messenger Millennials may remember “SmarterChild.” It was a bot that would communicate with you. Today, his descendants have begun — and continue — to automate countless aspects of our lives. It isn’t hard to see a future where taxi and livery drivers follow in the footsteps of buggy whip manufacturers. Self-driving cars are coming; it is simply a matter of time.
As automation changes countless aspects of our society, we will need our political and policy infrastructure to catch up. Large swaths of the social safety net were designed during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. Nuclear power and jet engines were theoretical at the time, while walking on the moon and eradicating polio were wild dreams. Today, we’re actively exploring sending humans to Mars and developing therapies that work on the genetic level.
Today’s economy is not one of large scale, unionized manufacturing, where men earn a paycheck and women maintain the homestead. Instead, we are faced with challenges getting men into the workforce and a “gig” economy, where traditional employment — retirement plans, health benefits, and the like — is replaced with “independent contractor” work for straightforward payment. Now unemployment, and Social Security payments are the individual’s responsibility.
Millennials will mature and start taking larger leadership roles in society. Indeed, from recent reports, that is the goal of some Democrats taking aim at Maine’s Second District Congressman, Bruce Poliquin.
But regardless of generational identity, we are due for a rethinking of our social safety net. Spending millions of dollars hiring bureaucrats to process paperwork to spend millions of dollars — Unemployment Insurance, Social Security, Earned Income Tax Credits — does not present a significant return on investment.
It may be time to consider reformation of these disparate government programs, while finding ways to unleash the creativity that exists in every American. And, done holistically with well-thought out tax reform, we can find a way to ensure the basic needs — food, shelter, warmth — of every American are met, while eliminating the so-called “welfare cliff” to ensure every hour of work undertaken makes an individual better off.
It won’t be simple, and it certainly won’t be easy. But, if you buy into Strauss and Howe’s generational theory, maybe the Millennial generation — both young and old — can figure out it.
Hopefully we’re more than safe spaces and snowflakes.