Americans: Get ready for the post-millennial generation. They have a lot to say.


Alex Sayres, 12, speaks during an Oct. 29 rally in Seattle by youth activists and others demanding action by the federal government on climate change. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Valerie Strauss

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to stop a lawsuit filed by young Americans who want to force the federal government to take action on climate change. The Trump administration had asked the court to stop the suit, which was filed in 2015, but it did not.

The suit was filed in Oregon by 21 young people, many of them minors, who are arguing that the federal government’s refusal to take action to fight climate change violates their constitutional right to a clean environment.

Whatever ultimately happens with the suit, it remains a reflection of the activism of young people, which, the author of the following post says, is in some ways unique. Sarah Vander Schaaff, a freelance writer, looks at what she calls the postmillennial generation, people born after 1996, and describes what she found.

Vander Schaaff has written some extraordinary pieces for The Washington Post, including one about her struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and another about how obsessive-compulsive disorder affected the life of one young man and his struggles to get through school. In another post for this blog, she wrote about a mother who realized that her young son — who threw a computer at his teacher in second grade — was mentally ill, and the help she got him and other children. And she wrote why the only charter school in Princeton, N.J., had become a flash point. Here’s her latest piece.

By Sarah Vander Schaaff

It doesn’t take a social scientist to tell you change is coming. It only takes a parent. And the contrast is staggering — between the leaders in Congress (whose average age is among the oldest of any Congress in U.S. history, according to the Congressional Research Service) and the generation of young people we are raising in our homes and schools.

Stand in the hallway of a school when students are walking from class to class. Observe students. Read the headlines of the student newspaper. Go to a game or performance. Notice themes in the emails from school administrators. The issues that occupy our worries and ignite our grown-up debates, including climate change, gender identity, sexual misconduct, digital privacy, economic opportunity and the threat of gun violence, are palpable. These are not opportunities to wield political power; they are part of the complex foundation out of which these young people must grow. They are trying to figure it out.

They have to figure it out.

Some dismiss this young generation’s determination, calling it naive or predictable. But others, like me, sense that there is some special combination of opportunity and outrage that gives this diverse and collaborative cohort a quality we can’t quite define. Moral energy. Passion. Whatever it is, it seems to be less about youth and more about responsibility.

Gary Lundgren, associate director of the National Scholastic Press Association who runs the organization’s Pacemaker Award for outstanding student journalism, said this young generation realizes its voice matters. Student journalists in high school and middle school have shown great interest in covering national issues at the local level, looking at #MeToo, mass shootings, the opioid crisis, body awareness, and vaping, and in some cases educating their parents.

“They have communication tools that are immediate and by and large the same tools professionals have,” he said.

These kids, born after 1996, are a generation without an official name. What is known is that they come after millennials, the cohort defined by the Pew Research Center as born between 1981 and 1996. Post-millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in our country’s history. Unlike millennials, who are recognized for adapting to social media and constant connectivity, these young people have essentially never lived in a world without them.

But the uniqueness of this generation goes beyond technology. KJ Dell’Antonia, former lead editor of the New York Times’s Motherlode blog and author of the book, “How to be a Happier Parent,” said the current generation is growing up in a different terrain than many of its Generation X parents.

“We grew up in a climbing gym. There were handholds. If I do this, then that will follow. If I get a good grade, this will follow. If I ace the SAT, this will follow,” Dell’Antonia said. Now, she said, “It’s a bare wall. A cliff face.”

In the face of that uncertainty, some see the post-millennials taking heightened responsibility. It’s a “post-trust” world in which the sentiment is: If we don’t step up and try to take care of this, nobody else is going to take care of us.

It’s both heartening and heartbreaking to see young people fill the void. Three years ago, students at Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, pushed for more mental health classes after a classmate died by suicide. Suicide is a growing concern for many young people, because it is the third leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24, and rates have tripled since the 1940s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Student survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., energized a movement with March for Our Lives. Since the 1999 Columbine shooting, 219,000 children at 223 schools have been exposed to gun violence during school hours, according to figures tabulated by The Washington Post. The updated database indicates the date of the most recent shooting. As I type this, the update reads “five days ago.”

The editorial board of Chicago’s University High School’s student newspaper, whose piece, “Conservative Students Entitled to Safe Space, Too” was selected as a Pacemaker Award finalist this year, called for fellow students to stand by their school’s founding ideals, defending the need for “more spaces where students can learn from and even respectfully disagree with one another.”

Some efforts seamlessly link the personal with the global and the imperative of the present moment, such as the young student at my daughter’s school who held a bake sale to help her father’s family in Chennai, India, devastated by 10 days of heavy rains and government failure to the manage water supply.

In his recent story in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s magazine Ed, “Student Activism 2.0,” Zachary Jason looks at an essential question about such activism: Does it make a difference? From the student strike at the Sorbonne in the year 1229 through the activism of Never Again, he cites variables that determine and sustain success. College students, for example, find more success when linking a world issue to a campus policy. Younger students generally do better with issues that are not a direct challenge to their school. And students of color face another challenge: prejudice.

But youthful generations, of course, become adults, and formative life experiences “such as world events and technology, economic and social shifts” interact with the “aging process to shape people’s views of the world,” according to the Pew Research Center. So how will the divisive tone of today’s politics shape the postmillennial mind-set for problem-solving and political engagement in their adulthood?

They could expand on the footprint of millennials, a generation that has the highest proportion of voters who identify as independent, and for whom, even among Republicans, a majority says that there is “solid evidence of global warming” and that “Americans’ openness to people from all over the world is essential to who we are as a nation,” as noted in the Pew Research Center’s report “The Generation Gap in American Politics.”

They could reject the premise that issues once considered taboo are still divisive. Pew’s report shows, for the first time, “a majority of baby boomers express support of same-sex marriage.” And multiple surveys show a majority of parents in both major political parties support comprehensive sex education in school.

“There’s no ambiguity there,” said Bonnie Rough, author of “Beyond Birds and Bees.” The idea that sex education is considered improper by Americans is an outmoded idea but one with lingering consequences not only for sexuality, she said, but for gender equality. The United States ranks 49th in a Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum.

The moment could be an opportunity for schools to rehabilitate the “disappearing center,” said one school administrator with 14 years of experience. He suspects the new generation will begin to find a new framework and norms to replace the ones that are outdated.

“Societies have been through watershed moments before when older ways of thinking begin to collapse or show signs of their age,” he said. “Inevitably, during this turbulent transition period, the old ways aren’t working, but we haven’t figured out what a new way will look like. Eventually something will emerge. It always does. I wouldn’t be surprised if the current generation of students are leaders in that.”

There are many ways to lead, of course. The oldest of these post-millennials are just reaching voting age, capturing 5 percent of the adult population.

They can run for Congress in 2022.

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