One year ago today President Obama signed the Kennedy Serve America Act fulfilling one of his most important campaign promises to the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003). The legislation represented the biggest expansion of national service since FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Among other provisions, the bill
Established programs to involve middle and high school students in community service, including its innovative Summer of Service programs;
Expanded AmeriCorps openings over 8 years, allowing for up to 250,000 AmeriCorps volunteers by fiscal year 2017;
Expanded the National Civilian Community Corps' mission to include projects on energy conservation, environmental stewardship or conservation, infrastructure improvement, urban and rural development, or disaster preparedness needs; and
Established new volunteer Corps to engage Millennial's enthusiasm for such efforts including the Education Corps to improve schools, the Healthy Futures Corps to serve unmet health needs within communities, the Clean Energy Corps to work on energy projects, the Opportunity Corps to work with the economically disadvantaged, and the Veterans Corps to work with veterans and their families.
In return for participating in these service initiatives, the legislation raised the value of the full-time national service educational award that goes to participants in the Corporation for National Community Service's programs to the maximum amount of a Federal Pell Grant. This will enable those who volunteer, to return to school after serving their country, just as members of the GI generation did after WWII.
One effort that deserves special mention is the recently concluded "Beyond the Welcome Home" Veteran's Summit hosted by one of the leading Millennial service organizations, Mobilize.org, in Carson, California. More than five dozen veterans of the Iraqi or Afghanistan wars, representing Millennial veterans from all branches of the armed services gathered for three days to identify the major problems facing returning veterans and develop service solutions to address their issues. Joined by civilian Millennials and interested non-profits, the group used the latest in interactive technologies to prioritize the issues they wanted to address.
The four most important issues facing returning veterans that the group identified did not sound very different than those facing veterans returning from earlier wars:
1. Reintegrating veterans into civilian life so they can productively interact with civilians and society again.
2. A lack of knowledge about programs and benefits post-separation for the armed forces that could help veterans with their return to civilian life.
3. Suicide prevention to deal with feelings of lack of self-worth post-deployment and post-military that many veterans experience.
4. Delays in receiving the health care and other benefits that they are entitled to due to poor communication between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
But the solutions that received the most support from the participants had a distinctly Millennial flavor. Many emphasized the group solidarity that Millennials feel so intensely. As one participant put it, "The way to deal with these issues is with veterans taking care of each other, just as we did in Iraq." Or as another participant said, "We need to do things ourselves, not have DoD do it. We always do better ourselves."
Millennial's determination to overhaul the institutions their elders built or, failing that, to start new ones was also evident in the suggestions offered at the conference. "We should use the established Veteran Service Organizations, but if they don't work, we should create new ones." One popular way to start new institutions was to create a "Facebook for Vets" site that could link all the sites Millennial vets are using into a single place to get all the information they need.
Nor were the participants daunted by the challenge of taking on two of the federal government's biggest bureaucracies-DoD and the VA-through their generation's penchant for political engagement. Two comments capture the larger sentiment of the group. "We need to become active and aware of political issues that involve veterans and encourage our fellow Millennials to vote for legislators who support veterans' issues." "By sharing information and becoming advocates we can get DoD and VA to respond."
Of the approximately 2 million service men and women who have served our country so far in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 60%, almost 1.26 million, are members of the Millennial Generation, so these sentiments are certain to find their way into this year's political campaigns. Unlike the shunned and often reviled veterans of the Vietnam War, Millennials are returning to a society that respects their service. According to NDN's latest survey on America's 21st Century electorate, 64% of Millennials, as well as 78% of older generations, have a positive view of the nation's military. But more than one in five veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 can't find work when they return home.
The country's appreciation needs to be translated into programs for veterans that are worthy of the honor this generation has brought to our country. Three years ago, Mobilize.org established its Democracy 2.0 declaration which states that it is time "to act. . . to upgrade America's unfinished project of democracy." The organization has taken an important step along that path by hosting the summit and providing $25,000 to support the best ideas that flowed from the conference. But as the nation observes National Volunteer Week, each of us should take a moment to commit to doing whatever is needed to honor the most important volunteers this country has-the members of the United States Armed Forces.
One way to do so would be to connect to any of the groups that earned support from Mobilize.org for the work they were doing with Millennial veterans at the Summit, or to some of the other groups dedicated to helping America's next great generation contribute as much in their civilian life as they have already done in the military. This list is a great place to start honoring our Millennial veteran's service:
The selection of former Secretary of State Colin Powell to announce the Obama Administration's national service initiative, "Renew America Together" (USAService.org), is much more than a smart political move. It’s a perfect down payment on the promises Obama made to his most ardent supporters, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003).
The support of young voters was decisive in Obama's narrow nomination victory over Hillary Clinton and their 2:1 margin for him over John McCain accounted for 80 percent of his nearly nine million national popular vote lead last November. By giving Powell this important and visible role, Obama simultaneously burnishes his bipartisan credentials and demonstrates his understanding that the United States has moved to a new era dominated by the outlook of a new generation determined to make America a stronger and more unified country.
Millennials are of an archetype labeled "civic" by the seminal generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe. Like all other civic generations throughout American history, Millennials are defined by their strong desire to advance the welfare of the entire group and, by extension, all of society. The willingness of Millennials to help make things better was reflected in their enthusiastic reaction to Obama’s call during the campaign for a program aimed at young people that would help them pay for college in exchange for two years of public service, either in the military or one of the federal civilian service organizations. While the financial concerns of a generation heavily burdened by educational debt may have partially accounted for the loud applause this idea always generated, there is far more to it than self-interest.
A 2004 Harvard University Institute of Politics survey indicated that 85 percent of college-age Millennials considers public service an effective way to solve problems facing the country. A virtually unanimous 94 percent say that volunteer activity is effective in dealing with challenges in their local community.
Millennials have already clearly demonstrated their strong willingness to put these attitudes into action by participating in service programs in large numbers. In 2004, 80 percent of high school students, all of whom were Millennials, participated in community service activities. This contrasts with only 27 percent of high school students, all whom were members of the much more individualistic Generation X, that did so in 1984. Stemming from the virtually total public service participation of Millennials, by 2006 more than a quarter of those who volunteered for one of the federal government's National Service organizations (26 percent) were 16-24 year olds. That was twice the contribution of young people in 1989, when all of those in the 16-24 year old cohort were Gen-Xers.
But this won't be the first time that a civic generation has rallied to the service of America. And, it won't be the first time that a grateful country has rewarded this service. After the GI Generation great-grandparents of today's Millennials helped to defeat the Axis in World War II, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill of Rights, sent millions of returning veterans to college. This was not only a just reward for a job well done; it was also excellent public policy. By exponentially increasing the number of American college graduates and the size of the country's middle class, it paved the way for the long period of post-war growth that made the last half of the 20th century the American Century. If history is any guide, the Millennial Generation will follow in the footsteps of the GI Generation and through its dedication to public service will leave America an even stronger country than the one they inherited.
President-elect Barack Obama’s remarkable showing among Millennials (voters 18-26 years old), who supported him by a more than 2:1 margin, was a direct byproduct of his groundbreaking effort to utilize online communication tools to mobilize these core supporters. The Obama campaign took full advantage of the ability and willingness of Millennials to self-organize on behalf of the campaign and its voter turnout efforts. Now, like proud parents unsure of how to handle the success of a child who has just graduated, the former candidate and his incoming administration must decide how to maintain their new offspring’s enthusiasm while ensuring that it channels its energies into the most productive activities. The answer to this challenge can be found by leveraging both the spirit of service that is so much a part of the Millennial Generation's lifestyle and the ability of Millennials to self-organize using social network technologies.
According to Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, almost 60 percent of Millennials are “personally interested in engaging in some form of public service to help the country.” The ethos of service among Millennials is strongly supported regardless of gender or party affiliation. While many of those surveyed see public service as working for government, or even running for office, there is no reason to channel the generation’s enthusiasm solely into these more politically oriented activities. Instead, the incoming Obama Administration should create an entity to help Millennials find ways to rebuild all of America’s civic institutions.
Just as the Obama campaign's Web site, MyBarackObama.com, was not an ordinary political Web site, this “Sprit of Service,” social network should not be an attempt simply to replicate e-mail lobbying efforts like those of MoveOn.org. That kind of activity can be turned over to an Obama-friendly DNC, which is already salivating at the prospect of inheriting the campaign’s estimated 13 million e-mail addresses. Instead, the new site should attempt to guide its “friends” without asserting direct control over their decisions. As Republican online campaign consultant Mike Turk pointed out to the almost totally deaf ears of his party’s leadership last year, “What makes you successful online is not how many e-mails you can amass, but the quality of the people on the list. [Letting them interact] is the free pizza, Cokes and music with which you feed your volunteers.”
We already see evidence that the net-savvy Obama operatives get this distinction. At the official Web site of the transition, change.gov, visitors are invited to join discussions on critical policy issues, such as health care reform, in the “hope it will allow you to form communities around these issues.” As the 2008 presidential campaign demonstrated, Millennials have enough energy and technological ability to run with this ball once it is handed to them. Millennials are members of a “civic” generation, one that believes, among other things, that their personal involvement will make government work again, reinforce and extend the power of the Democratic Party, improve the education of their siblings, and help their local community successfully cope with difficult times. What change.gov, or its successor, can give Millennials is information on how to get involved, a place to share ideas, and a chance to link to others with similar interests and energy.
The key will be to port this community-building online activity into the post-Inaugural world in a way that gives it a connection to the President without, at the same time, drowning it in bureaucratic rules or short term political priorities. Although government will ultimately benefit from the volunteer activities generated by this site, the perverse impact of provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act and Freedom of Information laws on dealing with volunteers suggest that the site cannot be housed inside government--even as part of the official national service "Corps." Even though those who are attracted to the site are likely to become more closely identified with the Democratic Party, it cannot be housed at the DNC, which would inevitably succumb to the temptation to overly politicize the site.
Instead a non-profit organization, devoted to the cause of harnessing the Millennial Generation's interest in civic engagement, should establish the site with an advisory board of directors made up of “friends of Obama” and an operational staff drawn from the online experts of his campaign. Properly funded, organized and structured, this “Spirit of Service” will enable Millennials to satisfy their desire to rebuild the country's civic institutions and restore America's national pride, while at the same time advancing the policy and political goals of the Obama Administration.
NDN Fellows Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2008.