No one knows how the Occupy Wall Street movement will be viewed in a year or in even six weeks. Right now, however, one of the principal critiques from almost every side is that the protesters don’t have specific goals or demands. There’s an implication of incoherence and silliness, as though they’re ignoring activism’s historic “best practices.” Former president Bill Clinton said last month, “They’re going to have to transfer their energies at some point to making some specific suggestions or bringing in people who know more to try to put the country back to work.”
But what many believe to be OWS’s greatest weakness may be its greatest strength. At MTV, we consider it our job to understand the millennial audience. And a refusal to limit itself to a list of demands may be part of the protesters’ generational DNA.
Millennials’ relationship to authority differs from that of previous generations. Millennials weren’t raised with hierarchical, top-down parenting. They’ve grown up with peer-ents; they’re used to seeing authority figures as equals. Add to that what it means to be born and live within the swarm-power of social media, and you have a potent mix.
Millennials don’t think of themselves as outside the system. They believe they are the system. The fact that there’s no definitive leadership in New York’s Zuccotti Park speaks to this generation’s complex understanding of power.
Young people in the 1960s had a mandate and a message. The boomers stood outside the gate and issued their list of demands.
Millennials are trying to remake existing structures to reflect what they expect from business and government. Consider the protests’ General Assembly — a transparent, open, fair and participatory government. The protesters have shaped from the ground up what it means to have a civil society. Or consider how inclusive the protesters are. The young people at the heart of things have welcomed parents, teachers, administrators, union members and others from across generations.
Where their parents engaged in civil disobedience, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are participating in civilized disobedience. Zuccotti Park is the opposite of anarchy. There’s a lending library and a mulch deposit. When the city wanted to clean up, the protesters refused, preferring to clean the park themselves. OWS’s famed human microphone is a metaphor for the movement: By working together, we can amplify our voices.
Millennials realize that there aren’t always clear answers to their concerns. They know that the multitude of societal problems needs to be attacked in a multiplicity of ways.
It’s that open-door policy that has let the protests grow so rapidly. By providing a blank slate on which an entire society can project its grievances, OWS has spread across the United States and into almost 100 countries in little more than a month. It is also highly inclusive. In the small confines of of Zuccotti Park, environmentalism, anti-sexism, spirituality and more are represented.
That’s an incredible achievement. OWS’s most important accomplishment is dramatically changing the national conversation. In just a few weeks, the protesters have jolted us into a dialogue on income inequality and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, as well as a litany of generational frustrations. A recent CBS-New York Times poll found that 66 percent of those surveyed agreed with the protesters’ rallying cry that wealth should be distributed more evenly in this country.
So, demands may be beside the point for Occupy Wall Street. For the generation that has essentially grown up with Facebook and now broadcasts its every movement on Twitter, generating attention is the result. The OWS protests are a manifestation of the digital generation, “Like” and “+1” translated into the analog world.
Millennials are the largest generation in history — significantly larger than the baby boomers. Sheerly by virtue of their size, they are going to change the dynamics of this country. Whether it’s revolutionizing social networks, changing the workplace or reinventing activism, we’re already starting to see the first signs of this generation’s strength.
When I went to Zuccotti Park a few weeks ago, I saw a protester carrying a sign that read, “The beginning is near.” That powerful play on the doomsday slogan epitomized what this generation is about. Millennials have so much faith in themselves they believe that they can remake an entire society from the ground up. And they’re starting to do it.
The writer is president of MTV.