Nussbaum: Our Politics Are at Odds With Gen Y Values

Only 9% of Gen Y voters voted in November. Why?

Nussbaum: Our Politics Are at Odds With Gen Y Values


Fewer than 9% of eligible voters who belong to the Gen Y demographic chose to vote on November 2. This is an extraordinarily low turnout for a generation poised to replace the dominant Boomers in size and social clout. Increasingly, Gen Y is shaping Americas cultural and economic future. But will it also shape the country’s politics? Which is the anomaly: the very large Gen Y turnout for Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election or the tiny turnout in the 2010 mid-term elections for Congress?

I?m betting on tiny turnouts for years to come. The major reason is cultural disconnect. The political culture of Washington, with its personal anger and uncompromising animosity, its Know Nothing rejection of global warming science and its embrace of religiosity without spirituality, its big company corruption legalized by lobbying, is in deep conflict with Gen Y culture.

The political culture of Washington is in deep conflict with Gen Y culture.

Gen Y is a much more collaborative culture that deeply dislikes conflict. The norm for this generation is having hundreds of friends on Facebook, texting dozens of them all day long, working in teams, staying close to mom and dad and receiving awards and praise for playing the game, not just winning. Everyone has a voice, a respected point of view. Even if you disagree, a compromise is a given.

Washington political culture is pretty much the opposite these days. It’s all elbows out, loud, angry, confrontational, insulting, winner-take-all — and appalling to young voters. It’s not something they want to be part of. It’s actually a process they prefer to avoid.

But what about the high turnout two years ago, mostly for Obama? That’s part of the current problem. There were high hopes that Obama would bring bipartisanship to Washington, the kind of culture Gen Yers could participate in. That didn’t happen. There were also high hopes that the ideological issue dearest to the hearts of Gen Yers — sustainability — would get serious attention. That didn’t happen. There was also delight two years ago in Obama using the technology-of-choice for Gen Y, social media, to reach them and talk to them in their space. But this time around, politicians of all kinds poured into social media space, invading it, moving Gen Y to retreat from the process.


I don’t think this is going to change in the next Presidential election or anytime soon. The more Gen Ys I talk to, the more they tell me that non-profits, small business (yes, business) and maybe local government are where all the action is. Washington is in its own la-la land. Online philanthropy and peer-to-peer lending is big and growing. Etsy and other sites that market stuff made in global villages are hugely popular. Promoting sustainability by your individual actions — getting deep into locavore food culture, using ZipCar, not owning a car, recycling clothes (vintage!), biking to work, living in smaller spaces, buying eco-friendly brands like Nau or Method, using mass transit, is the Gen Y way. Directly supporting causes via the Internet without political party or policy intermediation is the norm.

When Gen Y wants to change the world, it becomes an Acumen fellow, launches a new social media company, joins Teach for America, changes its own consuming habits or goes to Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Voting is just too yucky.

Which is too bad. Without Gen Y, Washington politics will only get yuckier.

[Image by Anosmia]

About the author

Bruce Nussbaum is the author of Creative Intelligence (HarperBusiness, March 2013). He is "Mentor-In-Residence" at NEW INC, the art/technology incubator of New Museum.