Could “Millennials” deliver more election night surprises in the future?

“What the heck is going on?” you might have been tempted to ask in the aftermath of Monday’s federal election.

It was a strange sort of election, alright. Though the Conservatives now have their majority, the NDP has now displaced the Liberal Party as the government-in-waiting, the Green Party has won its first parliamentary seat in a general election, and blue-collar northeast Winnipeg is now Tory blue.

Not to mention that the newly elected MPs include a 19-year-old and a rural Quebec MP who doesn’t speak French well enough to communicate with her constituents and spent part of the campaign holidaying in Vegas, but still won by a healthy 6,000-vote margin anyway.

Canada is not the only country experiencing electoral oddities. Last year, Britain elected its first minority government since the ’70s — and its first formal coalition government since World War II. On the other side of the world, disgruntled Australian voters vaulted enough Green and independent MPs into office to produce that country’s first “hung parliament” in 70 years.

And don’t get me started on the asinine, conspiracy theory-obsessed world of U.S. politics.

This year, there was a major push to get out the Millennial vote — that is, younger Canadians aged 18-30 — in a desperate attempt to reverse the country’s declining electoral turnout rates.

In addition to boosting our new Kids in Parliament scheme, it might very well have introduced an element of unpredictability into Canadian politics.

A 2007 U.S. report by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement noted that Millennials are “involved locally with others but are ambivalent about formal politics” and that they “dislike spin and polarized debates”.

A paper presented at a 2007 conference observed that Millennials have little patience for delays or hierarchy, are collaborative, expect to be continuously learning, and are “practical, caring deeply about concrete results, grades, and achievements”.

“They are fixers. They are not content to sit, watch and wait,” a 2007 article* on young peoples’ participation in religious activities noted about Millennials. “They want to be involved, but that does not necessarily translate into eager ‘joiners’…”

In short, they have little in common with their ‘joiner’ grandparents. Grandma and Grandpa might have been happy to attend constituency meetings, get a party newsletter in the mail, and write a cheque to help the party out from time to time, but many Millennials will be looking for something more.

Millennials are a quick-moving, flexible generation… and a bad fit for political parties as they’re currently structured.

A generation that tends to be “ambivalent about formal politics” and to “dislike spin and polarized debates” is a generation that is not likely to recommend a political party to their friends by word of mouth, to be loyal to any one party for very long, or to donate either money or their time as canvassers and scrutineers.

A generation not patient with delays will be turned off by the parties’ limited options for getting things done quickly or for small-group collaboration, and even more so by their hierarchical structures. The rigid enforcement of party discipline will also offend their practical-mindedness and preference for collaboration with others to get quick results.

A generation “not content to sit, watch and wait” will find no joy in spending hundreds of dollars to waste a perfectly good Saturday afternoon debating and voting on policy resolutions that will ultimately go nowhere.

What have political parties done to attract the Millennials so that they will have a next generation to pass the torch to when their aging membership is no longer able to continue on?

Not much.

Given that the average Canadian party member was 59 years old when a study of Canadian political party members was carried out in the early 2000s — and only six percent of card-carrying partisans were under the age of 30 — attracting younger people is a problem the parties will need to tackle if they want a healthy pool of potential candidates, campaign workers and financial backers.

Inattentiveness to the next generation could also come back to bite the parties in the rear end in the long term, as the mercurial Millennials surge rapidly back and forth between parties, showing long-term loyalty to none and confounding those who were used to dealing with an older generation whose loyalty could be counted on.

An academic research paper submitted to the U.S. Army War College in 2008 dealt with the challenges of recruiting Millennials (also known as “Generation Y”) into the military, and highlighted some recommendations from the U.S. Army Recruiting Command’s Recruiting Millennials Handbook that might just as well apply to political parties:

[R]ecruiters are encouraged to stress positive outcomes of military service, again, emphasizing constructive images of military service to others. Recruitment material is designed to be upbeat, well rounded and create an expectation of “success for all.”

Note to political parties: When was the last time you offered up party involvement as a way of serving others or of sharing success, or presented an upbeat image of your organization? Have attack ads served this purpose well?

The Y generation is connected and influenced by friends and parents like no other generation before them. They value input and collaboration in decision making and task completion. Recruiters are encouraged to stress interchangeable skills and broad participation among recruits; emphasize the teaching of team skills; show recruits in groups – not solo; and demonstrate racial and ethnic diversity beyond simple black and white.

Note to political parties: What options do you give your members for providing input and collaboration in decision making that actually delivers results? (Policy resolutions, which are largely meaningless, don’t count.) Are you prepared to relax party discipline so that younger people who do choose to run for public office will be free to collaborate across party lines? Can young people who join your party acquire any useful skills? Are your constituency organizations diverse, or are they dominated by homogeneous cliques who’ve been there for years and see no reason to change?

Generation Y has been labeled “as one of the most educated generations yet and they love to learn.” Recruiters are encouraged to stress educational opportunities emphasizing math, science and technological achievement. The recruiters should demonstrate a planned future demonstrating how recruits will “keep up” with their civilian peers and be provided with success and long term growth opportunities.

Note to political parties: What learning opportunities do you offer? What success or long-term growth opportunities can a young person expect to find in your party?

If the study of party members conducted a decade ago (see above) is anything to go by, the over-60s outnumbered the under-30s among the party faithful by a factor of roughly 8-to-1 in the early 2000s, and possibly even by more now as the Boomers continue to age. Maybe the parties are too engrossed in short-term business to bother trying to correct this demographic imbalance; maybe they actually welcome this change as a way of simplifying how they operate.

Either way, the Millennials’ free-floating ways could make for many more election night surprises in the years to come.


* – Another noteworthy comment in the same publication: “Generation X, the generation of latch-key childcare and no-fault divorce, was the first generation of American missionaries who emphatically stated that family wholeness would be valued above loyalty to agency policy or mission directive. Any organization making assumptions that fathers were expected to spend extended time away from their families or children was challenged. This has not changed; if anything, these convictions are stronger with current college students and their parents.” This could bode ill for political parties’ efforts to recruit candidates, given that politicians are expected to spend long periods of time away from their families and to make the organization’s mission their first priority.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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