While watching President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, it struck me that we millennials are almost all grown up.
About 10 years ago, at tech conferences and in news stories, we millennials started to pop up in narratives more and more frequently. Many wondered what the impact of “Generation Y” (as we were often called) — an “echo” of the boomers who birthed us — would be on politics, the workplace and the economy.
I heard older people talk about us as if we were alien — then adorable curiosities — and I really wanted to better understand us millennials as our character formed and became more defined by ourselves and on our behalf by lecturers, journalists and consultants trying to figure out what we were all about. My first writing about this phenomenon was a feature about then-Sen. Obama and what millennial support for the presidential candidate looked like.
Afterward, I took on an immersive research project funded in equal parts by crowdfunding and the Case Foundation. It took me across the country, meeting young professionals and millennial activists. My tour, which took me to 30 cities and towns, took place in the later part of 2008, when President Obama was elected and as the realities of a severe recession were starting to settle in.
That tour offered an interesting frontline look at both of these phenomena — popular support for an optimistic, young candidate speaking to a desire for something less apocalyptic than the initial post-9/11 years and confrontation with the dramatic, shifting realities of the new economic hellscape.
I saw these realities with my own eyes — most notably hundreds of abandoned construction projects on the highways of Middle America — and I met kids and young adults who were ready for something new, excited for a new era and terrified by the fact that the economy as we knew it was no more.
The economy has shaped back up a bit, but for millennials, the recession is still with us. The other day, I spoke with a shop owner close to my age.
“I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she said. “Having run the business through the recession and having really toughed it out, I feel shaped by that in a way where I am always waiting for it to happen again.”
The recession has shaped millennial psychology. When I read about stock woes in China or about blips in the markets here, my gut says the next logical step is another total bottoming out.
In his last State of the Union address, Obama reminded me of what I think we collectively saw in him in 2007 and 2008. We saw what shined in him and what resonated with what we very much needed at the time. In his last address, I again saw a beacon, an optimistic reminder of some of the great things that have been accomplished in this country’s history over the past decade and what could be possible in the future.
We have been through more difficult times in our past, he reminded us, and if we were able to work through those, we’ll be just fine. Things can be messy, many of our systems and leaders have displayed their flaws, but we also can be great and do great things. In that way, I think I saw in Obama what people who love Ronald Reagan saw in the 40th president. Both leaders, in incredibly uncertain times, both responsible for actions and approaches with which I have plenty of issues, helped to shape an optimistic narrative at a time when we needed one.
We are an anxious generation generally, and there is plenty of reason for contention, deliberation and protest. What we don’t need now, though — and what would have been especially unhelpful over the past eight years — is a fixation on gloom to compound those anxieties.
We have been served well by an optimistic and forward-thinking narrative, one that reminds us of our strengths and our potential, one that is the exact opposite of the narrative being peddled by the frontrunners for the GOP presidential nomination.
Obama, in his recognition of the importance of optimism and clarity of vision, will likely be remembered with fondness and appreciation by our generation, the generation that needed him most.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.