So we've occupied Wall Street. Millennial generation protesters have joined forces with an unlikely assemblage of the older generation: Nobel laureate Joseph Stieglitz, Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon. The protests united folks concerned about a variety of different issues around the idea that "Wall Street causes inequality."
Now that the media attention is focused on the Occupy Wall Street protests, how do we fundamentally resolve such inequality?
It has been difficult to resolve inequalities in the United States because our politics has not kept up with the advances that have emerged in the past 20 years. It's as if the scholars who have developed new models of politics all have iPhones, while the media, average citizens and policy makers are still using politics that works like a rotary dial phone.
Today's political discourse does not fully consider the linkages between the public needs of multiple generations -- whether it's strong public schools or college affordability on the Millennial side or having sustainable Medicare and Social Security on the Baby Boomer side. There is, in other words, a cultural generation gap that prevents us from connecting the dots to resolve persistent inequality in a comprehensive way.
The cultural generation gap is considered the product of two demographic trends that are causing anxieties in times of economic hardship:
- the aging of Baby Boomers, who have spent their entire lives in a United States that is a white majority nation, and have no intention of withdrawing from the public arena, and
- the ascent of Millennials (and increasingly their children), who are not simply the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history but also have the largest percentage of foreign-born individuals. By 2015 Millennials will be the second largest adult generation and are transforming the workplace.
Demographic trends are a lot like tectonic plates -- they are very difficult to stop once they are set in motion. But the cultural generation gap isn't a predetermined outcome. It because we have failed to eradicate the persistent overlapping disparities along the axes of race/ethnicity, gender, national status, and economic class.
Now resolving these overlapping layers of inequality would be challenging and complex in times of peace and prosperity. Throw in a global economic recession alongside two wars and the cultural generation gap grows ever bigger.
What are we to make of these compounding trends? Although cross-generational protesting is an important step forward to resolving overlapping patterns of economic inequality, we cannot simply protest in the same 20th century way, which most Americans are socialized to tune out.
First, eradicating inequality must go beyond generational spokesmen stating the talking points of the other generation. 68 year-old Stieglitz linked the slogan, "Wall Street Causes Inequality" to the case of young people who face prospects of spending the next few years underemployed or with no job at all. However, media coverage of the speech and interviews by Stieglitz himself failed to connect the impact of such underemployment and other issues facing Millennials to the needs of his own generation, which would move the conversation in a 21st century direction. Today's Boomers aren't going anywhere, but they will increasingly need healthcare and other forms of services that will be provided by Millennials. Who doesn't want their own healthcare worker to have the proper training, education and employment opportunities in order to receive quality care? Shifting the narrative reveals the interdependence between needs across the generations.
Second, we ignore the racial, ethnic, gender, and national status aspects of college access at our peril. Stieglitz's comments referred to a specific subset of the Millennial generation who have had access to college, who, most statistics show, are also more likely to be members of the majority class, race and national status groups in the U.S. But the challenges facing young people in terms of employment go beyond not being able to pay off student loans.
It is clear to me that recent college graduates face unemployment rates that are patently unacceptable. But increasing the coverage to all Millennials allows us to talk about the youth Stieglitz missed in his comments: the youth who were tracked away from college and into a host of dead-end opportunities, the youth products of a failed K-12 public education system in many low-income communities of color, and those who lost hope and left us too soon as a result of homophobic bullying. The longer they remain outside the employment sector, the less money is funneled into current benefits for Medicare and Social Security, programs that help keep Boomers and their older counterparts out of poverty in their older years. When AARP only organizes its members to protest government cuts -- a rotary dial, defensive approach -- they ignore the 21st century reality that support for policies that increase employment for younger folks is one of the best forms of insurance against future cuts -- an iPhone approach that puts them back on offense.
Linking intergenerational values and interests helps us leave our rotary dial phones behind in favor of iPhone politics that can enable us to cultivate civic relationships across demographic groups, foster cross-generational dialogues and create 21st century solutions.