You might not realize it or you might be unwilling to accept it, but the millennials are yesterday's news. Just when we'd all grown accustomed to those little scamps with their portable telephones and so on, it turns out that some of them are in their mid-30s.
There's another generation (if you choose to accept the endless scam that is generational differentiation) that's younger and more Internet-y and more hopeful and more of everything we'd just finally come to terms with about the millennials. And it is a generation without a name.
The White House tried to call it the "Homeland Generation," since they appeared shortly after 9/11, which is kind of suspicious. And then a few weeks ago MTV decided to call them the "Founders," which is even worse for obvious reasons and much worse for one not-obvious reason: MTV called them that just to get some media attention.
So I wrote about this and about how the whole thing was silly using all of the refined subtlety and nuance you see above. And the next thing you know, a Founder, a little Foundling, sent me a tweet taking issue with my casual dismissal of everyone his age.
This particular Homeland Founder is Gabe Fleisher, and he is not a normal Foundland. At just 14, he edits Wake Up To Politics, a daily political newsletter he founded. He's in eighth grade and he has been on TV, which is just how it works for Homefounds. He sent a thoughtful email, and I invited him to let me ask him questions over email about his generation and politics and, of course, what word we might use to lump him and everyone his age together in a way that marketers can understand and use to make money.
This has been edited a bit, because Founders are verbose.
FIX: So I wrote something about MTV’s attempt to brand the post-millennial generation as the “Founders,” which is stupid. You, as a member of that generation, took issue with what I wrote. Before you lay into me, give me a little background on who you are and why you’re so into politics in the first place.
FLEISHER: I first got interested in politics during the 2008 election season, really just stemming from my curiosity about all the yard signs, and canvassers, and TV ads. I start asking questions, and that was when I first became fascinated with history and politics.
When I was 7, my dad took my sister and I to the 2009 presidential inauguration, and that was when I really became hooked, as I witnessed history being made and government in action. I've always loved to read and write, and as I read more about history and current events, I began writing about it in little emails to my mom when I was 9. She started forwarding it to people, and four years later, I'm still writing it to my mom, just with almost 1,000 other people too.
FIX: Very good. So. What did you find most disagreeable about my piece?
FLEISHER: While I agreed with some of what you wrote about the name "Founders," I was taken aback by some of your characterizations of my generation.
Above all, I disagree with your statement that teenagers don't understand the world, a belief shared by many adults. I think this belief stems from the fact that teenagers just understand a different world than adults do, and perhaps understand the world to come more than adults can.
Because the members of my generation can use emerging technology so much more effectively than adults can, we have the whole world's knowledge at our fingertips. We have the ability to connect with peers around the world at a speed that most people our senior couldn't dream of.
I'm not crazy about "The Founders" name, but I do think it correctly captures the truth that many don't realize: there are so many teenagers around the world who are using the technology available to us to our advantage, and building companies, friendships, and movements as a result.
As MTV said, teenagers will be responsible for building a new world order from society's current wreckage. You responded, by pointing out that adults gave us Internet and technology. Fine, that's true: but also climate change, war, debt, broken entitlement systems and so much more. We may not have created the tools necessary to fix these issues, but mine is the only generation immersed in those tools and able to build the connections to solve the world crises past generations have left in our laps.
FIX: I certainly wouldn’t say that teenagers know nothing about the world. But surely you admit that people who are older than you likely have a broader sense of how we got where we are and, likely, a generally deeper knowledge of things on the whole, no?
FLEISHER: I think we're dealing with generalizations here. I don't consider myself, or most of my peers, to be smarter than most adults. Certainly, those with more experience in the world are likely to have a richer understanding of it. However, you'll probably admit that there's a lot of not-very-smart adults — just as I would be the first to note that there are immature teens.
FIX: Well, you might be the second to say that. It also seems like you might be overstating the extent to which young people are better able to navigate technology. I mean, Google’s not that hard to master. Why do you say you have more foresight?
FLEISHER: Google's not that hard to navigate, sure (although in my experience, teenagers — who grew up as Google did — can utilize Google much faster for research and other purposes). But I don't view Google as a particularly new technology: it was founded more than three years before my birth. [Ed. note: This is a haunting sentence.]
Most adults may be able to find their way around a Google search, but a Skype call? A tweet? Snapchat? There are some adults who have adapted to these technologies, but young people are, by and large, much more at ease with them. These are the media that foster connections, which will be crucial as my generation continues to work on fixing the mess you're leaving us with.
We're increasingly looking towards a world totally immersed in technology: social media is where the next wars will be fought and won. Today's adults are simply not equipped to use new media in the ways that it can bring us closer together and salvage the world.
FIX: I’ll grant you that young people have more time to explore new technologies. That doesn’t mean it’s useful over the long run.
FLEISHER: Sure it does. In a few years — some might argue we're already there — new technologies will dictate all facets of life, for better or for worse. The next wars will be fought by hackers. The next global movement will start online. The next leaders will rise to power on social media. New technologies are going to become more and more ingrained with human interaction as my generation ages, and our ability to harness these technologies will allow us to come together and work for the advancement of society.
FIX: I have to push back here. Sure, Congress doesn’t know anything about the Internet, which is embarrassing. But the argument that there’s value in growing up with social networks that can’t be attained by someone who adopted them later in life — like myself — doesn’t seem valid at all. You were just criticizing me for generalizing, and then say "adults are simply not equipped to use new media, etc.” Not equipped in what way?
FLEISHER: Yes, I am generalizing there, and perhaps that's unfair to adults who have adapted to new media.
But I think it goes without saying that a generation that was raised with these technologies will adapt quicker than a generation that couldn't have dreamed of this technology when they were growing up.
FIX: Your level of political interest is probably abnormal for anyone of any age, but particularly for your age. There’s a general skepticism about the interest of young people in both policy and politics, which I happen to share. Year after year, politicians assure the world that they’ll win because they can turn out the youth vote, and then the youth don’t turn out. Do you think that your generation will break that trend?
FLEISHER: Honestly, no — but it's not their fault. While many teenagers around the world are engaged in politics like I am, so many young Americans are turned off by the current political climate.
The members of my generation who are not interested in politics now, but could become engaged later, only see the stinging rhetoric both parties use against each other. I hope my generation is the one to increase voter turnout, but I think the only way it will happen is an air of respect and cordial debate returns to our political system — and I'm not naive enough to think that's happening any time soon.
FIX: I want to check you a bit on “stinging rhetoric.” You pay way more attention to politics than most people your age; do you see a lot of “stinging rhetoric?" That seems like a sort of hackneyed complaint.
FLEISHER: As a student of history as well as politics, I know that it is important to recognize that fierce debate has always been a part of our political culture. Politics has always been a blood sport, and dirty tricks and angry campaigns date back to the founding of the republic.
However, it is hard not to look at the divisiveness and hatred in our politics today and point to it as a reason for civic disengagement — by all people, young and old. When you have two parties so often unwilling to even talk to each other, it leads to a breakdown in the system and distrust of all politicians by the people. At this very moment, we are hours away from the government running out of funding. Our leaders' response? Give us five more days, please ... essentially punting the problem to next week because they can't iron out their differences. This sets a dangerous precedent for when my generations starts holding political office, if substantive discussions are so hard to come by.
FIX: That’s a different issue. When money runs out is a function of brinksmanship, not rhetoric. Where’s this toxic rhetoric that’s turning people off?
FLEISHER: Brinksmanship and rhetoric are closely connected, and they both contribute to each other and to the "fiscal cliffs" and shutdowns that cause young people to become disgusted with the political process, and that's why they sadly try to tune it out.
For examples of that rhetoric, I'd point to a comment professor Peter Lawler made to The Fix earlier this week. "Some say that Democrats facilitate baby killers, others that Republicans are racist homophobes who hatefully psych up mass murderers," Lawler said. "Political rhetoric almost always includes a tendency to demonize the other guys. What's more lacking that usual right now is the balance of the generous inclinations to see political controversy as rooted in reasonable or at least understandable disagreement, and to seek political reform through persuasive conversation and compromise."
As Lawler points out, as political rhetoric becomes more degrading, those who are spreading it begin to believe it, stopping them from going to the negotiating table and having reasonable conversations. As political rhetoric turns our country into Democrats vs. Republicans (instead of Democrats and Republicans) with exaggerated attacks, it tarnishes the political process in the minds of young people, at exactly the time in their lives when they could be convinced to get involved with their democracy.
FIX: Let’s talk about C.J. Pearson. Pearson is a young man who rose to fame on the right by excoriating President Obama, endorsed Ted Cruz and then suddenly flipped sides to be a Bernie Sanders fan. He embodies the way a lot of people — myself included — often look at teenagers in politics: flighty and with a superficial understanding of politics. Pearson is one example of your generation; you’re another. Why should we not assume more teens are like him than you?
FLEISHER: I disagree with your premise here. C.J. is one of many examples of teens who have taken an interest in politics and risen in the ranks of political activism. Many young people naturally inherit the political beliefs of their parents; C.J. has done what few adults take the time do, and that is formulate actual opinions on issues by researching and asking questions. I applaud C.J.'s bravery in announcing to the world that he has changed his mind, and the effort that went into his decision of party affiliation. I only wish more adult voters were half as informed as he is.
FIX: He admits that he didn’t fully research Cruz before backing him (and becoming a celebrity). Why do you think adults are less informed than he is?
FLEISHER: I was not privy to C.J.'s decision-making process when he endorsed Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders (or Rand Paul before them), but if he says that he didn't research Cruz enough before backing him and regrets that choice, I think it is commendable that he continued to research candidates and issues until he found his true preference.
Study after study show that civic literacy is at an all-time low among American students and adults alike; our electorate is not as informed as it should be. When most people come of voting age, they back candidates their friends and parents support and never take time to find their true opinions, which may align with that of their parents, but it may not. Many current voters do not research candidates individually, instead voting straight-ticket for a single party.
Even after he announce his candidate preference, C.J. continued to research the contenders, and found out he aligned more closely with someone different. More people need to ensure that they are informed on issues and candidates so they are making the best choices for themselves and the country, and so our democracy can function as it was intended to.
FIX: What frustrates you about how adults see people your age in terms of political thought or activism?
FLEISHER: I think most adults view teenagers as uncaring about the world, and uninformed when the opposite is true, and when people my age do engage in the political process, most adults are suspicious of their ability to formulate ideas. The belief that just because some teenagers are not as involved with politics as others means all teenagers are not engaged is a false characterization of hundreds of Americans. I know firsthand that it can be difficult to prove to adults that you possess any knowledge of the world. What frustrates me most is when adults immediately dismiss smart kids solely based on age.
FIX: So now the key question: What do you want to call your generation (recognizing that we’re probably going to name it for you)?
FLEISHER: I'd really prefer almost any of the other choices MTV had in their poll, particularly the "Navigators." My generation was born at a crossroads in time, immediately after 9/11 and near the launch of social media and smartphones. It's will be our job to use the skills we possess to navigate to a new future. I do think, however, that it's pretty premature, since we still don't know what others events will shape my generation.
Which is where the conversation ended. One final note: Fleisher's valid point about what might shape his generation notwithstanding, we have decided to call them the "junior millennials," so please use that term from now on.