Karen Lincoln Michel

Michel: This is a defining moment for millennials

February cover story looks at this coming of age

On a crisp November night in Madison, I watched a sea of mostly college students march up State Street protesting the outcome of the presidential election held two days prior. I was awestruck, not because thousands turned out for the rally but because until then, I hadn’t seen such fervor rising from the group known as 20-somethings. I kept thinking: Why did they wait so long to speak out?

That question and more were answered through the interviews and careful research that shaped this month’s insightful cover story on 20-somethings. Written by Andrea Behling, our managing editor and herself a 20-something, the story helps flesh out the skeletal framework that scholars and social scientists use to characterize the millennial generation. Through the personal journeys shared by seven young Madisonians, we see how economics and evolving social norms have influenced their choices, and how 20-somethings in general are treading different paths from millennials in their 30s. It helps crystallize, in these uncertain times, why many young people are delaying marriage and starting families in favor of finding meaning and passion in their work and private lives.

Kathleen Gerson, a New York University professor interviewed for the 20-something story, addressed my question about the post-election protesters—and why many young people were exuberant about presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders but seemed to lose interest in the race after Sanders failed to get the Democratic nomination. She says it’s an example of this generation’s optimism.

Gerson says people have argued that Sanders and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump both spoke of creating great change, but she says young people gravitated toward Sanders because of his plans for free public higher education and narrowing the gap between rich and poor through various programs and a guaranteed minimum wage. While Sanders spoke of a future that made sense to 20-somethings, she says, Trump talked of making America great again—a message about “going back” or “holding off that change.” Though young voters appeared less engaged leading up to the election, they reacted to its outcome with great intensity, just as previous generations have done in their defining moments.

I admire people in their 20s. They’re taking time to figure out the world and their place in it. And when they feel the time is right, they speak out.


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