It’s not that we don’t care.
We just know that the fight ain’t fair.
So we keep waiting,
Waiting on the world to change.
—“Waiting on the World to Change,” music and words by John Mayer, 2006
We can change the world,
Re-arrange the world.
It’s dying—to get better.
—“Chicago,” music and words by Graham Nash, 1971
During the Vietnam War of presidents Lyndon Johnson (Democrat) and Richard Nixon (Republican), the mainstream media strained to comprehend and convey what was going on among America’s young people. The grasping generalizations they produced—shards of truth buried deep in distortions and comical exaggerations—quickly morphed into maddening generational stereotypes. As a college student and graduate at the time, I despised and mocked their lame efforts.
Now I’m the one trying to get a grip on what’s going on among America’s young people—and wondering if there’s any way to not become that which I despised.
The sharply contrasting song lyrics above, I confess, are not a good start. Holding up any song of any genre as emblematic of anything other than what was running through the composer’s head at the time is begging for trouble. Even so ...
Graham Nash was 27 or 28 when he wrote “Chicago”; he turns 66 next month. His song conjured up the police riot in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968 and the blatantly unjust trials of protest leaders that followed. Seminal events of the era, to be sure. But the song itself is obvious, preachy and about as insightful as a meat cleaver. What emerges despite the defects, though, is a sense of absolute certainty about the power to effect change.
Thirty-year-old John Mayer, arguably the finest guitarist of his generation, spins in exactly the opposite direction. He declares flatly that people his age lack the power to change anything and aren’t even trying. Instead, they’re waiting for the world to change, somehow, by itself. As pure song—the combination of music, lyrics, performance, production and recording—Mayer’s Grammy-winner is light-years better than Nash’s.
But “Waiting on ...” is limp and whiny. It seems to me that what’s stirring within young Americans today is a lot closer to the determination and confidence of Nash’s angry old anthem than Mayer’s fresh litany of excuses.
A recent Business Week cover story by Michelle Conlin explored the forces driving the political activism of Americans younger than 30—known as Generation Y, to apply one of many annoying labels. She cited, among other things: witnessing the impact of the dot-com collapse and corporate scandals on their parents’ savings, the ongoing health-care crisis, crushing levels of student debt and the decline in real dollars, since 2000, of starting salaries for new college graduates.
“I think about the costs of having a family, and it’s going to be so difficult,” a 25-year-old Barack Obama supporter from New York told her. “The government needs to intervene to revive the middle class.”
Conlin also found that young people’s success in forcing the music and media industries to change how they do business has provided them “with the self-confidence for a third-way, post-partisan manner of doing things.”
A “post-partisan” approach to governance should appeal to Americans of all ages. Over the last 20 years, it’s become harder and harder to find common ground on major societal issues like health care, economic opportunity, social justice, and national security under the law. The positions of elected officials have drifted out to the edges while the public has stayed clustered pretty close to the center.
Younger Americans seem to have grown fed up with this state of affairs; the rest of us have just grown tired. In last week’s New Hampshire primary, 43 percent of those younger than 30 decided to participate in the process, up from 18 percent four years ago and from 28 percent in 2000.
And being individuals, rather than stereotypes, young voters were not monolithic in their preferences. Among those who voted in the Democratic primary, Obama grabbed 60 percent of those 18-to-24 years old to Hillary Clinton’s 22 percent, but Clinton out-scored him among the 25-to-29 year olds (27 percent to 25 percent). Young New Hampshire Republican primary voters tilted toward John McCain; he got 27 percent of those aged 18 to 24 versus Ron Paul’s 19 percent.
It was the Iowa caucuses of Jan. 3, though, that rocketed Obama to the forefront of the race, and it was younger voters who supplied the propellant for him and to some extent for Republican victor Mike Huckabee. Days later, college newspapers reflected the resulting sense of muscularity.
Obama supporter Karl Stampfl, writing in the Michigan Daily, the student paper at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, was getting at something when he said Obama’s candidacy represented “the America we’re not yet too jaded to believe in.”
An editorial in The Pitt News at the University of Pittsburgh, dismissed those who complained about the vagueness of Obama’s speeches and promises. “They’re missing the point. Obama can’t fix our country alone. Nobody can.”
But—again tapping into a sensibility that would apply to Americans of all ages today—the editorial said that a lot of younger voters see Obama as the “inspirational leader” the country needs to overcome the divisiveness that has crippled it.
Of course, none of this escaped Clinton’s notice, as a Concord (N.H.) Monitor story of Jan. 6 noted. The Saturday before the primary, her campaign invited four young people—two women and two men, two college students and two working people—and a pair of reporters aboard the Clinton campaign bus for a short ride between towns with the candidate and her 27-year-old daughter, Chelsea.
Over the course of the wide-ranging conversation, Chelsea and her mom connected with their guests on public-policy issues (student debt, for example) as well as more personal matters (youthful rebelliousness).
Looking at the numbers and feeling the determination, optimism and pulsing political energy of young Americans, I recall the sneering line from Bob Dylan’s 1965 tune “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “... and you know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is—do you, Mr. Jones.”
But that’s a cop-out. What’s happening here—no matter which candidate you wind up supporting as the campaign proceeds, candidates drop out and issue positions crystallize—is something good.
Patti Smith, a 55-year-old New Hampshire primary voter from Hopkinton who voted for Obama, explained her broader perspective to the Concord Monitor: “I walked in and went up and down, and I said, `OK, I’m going to be hopeful and positive.’ (Clinton) knows how to get things done, but I wanted to show the young people today that there is hope.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.