Talking to a Millennial (ages 15-29) about feminism is like talking to an Alaskan about heatstroke. They’ve heard of it, sure, and what they’ve heard sounds pretty unpleasant—but it’s not a part of their world. Not at all. Maya, a 20-year-old woman living in New York, rolled her eyes when asked in a market research interview how she felt about women’s issues. “Oh, I’m no feminist,” she said. Rea, a 21-year-old in LA, had difficulty even comprehending a question about competing for jobs with men: “What do you mean? I don’t see any distinction, like, at all. Maybe I would sell myself short as a professional football player, but that’s just because I don’t like football.” Older feminists, like ourselves, initially react to this attitude with concern: How can the fight for gender equality ever be won if the next generation couldn’t care less?
The Millennial attitude towards feminism reflects the general cultural move towards a post-grievance society. They don’t blame men for gender barriers; instead they view them as a personal challenge to overcome. Therefore, success is within their personal power, and not dependent on the work of the sisterhood to achieve. The mindset of the younger generation exalts the power of the individual, so much so that among this generation, identity politics have largely lost their resonance. Challenges are individual challenges, no longer group challenges. It’s even been coined the “splinter generation” by some within the generation. As the website splintergeneration.com points out, “Our generation is split into a million different cultures and subcultures, whether they are religious, musical, literary, racial, class-based or consumer-based.” They do not see themselves as having power as a group as Boomers did. They identify with much smaller individualistic passions, an attitude that is supported and fueled by advances in technology.
This cultural shift explains much of the divide in how each generation views feminism. Millennial women live in a world where they believe they are equal, for the most part believe they are treated as equal, and importantly, they don’t believe being angry about the past gets you anywhere. In some ways you could claim that the Millenials live in the world Boomer women were fighting for; that they have what Boomer women want. Boomer women, on the other hand, grew up within a culture in which they had to fight for equality and it is fair to say their grievances are still strong. Therefore to them, the fight must continue on or we will lose sacred ground. It’s not surprising that Boomer women look at younger women and say: Wow, they have a very different worldview; I don’t understand these women, they’re not like me.
The outcome of the Democratic nomination process clearly illustrates the changing of the guard. Much of Obama’s magnetism with Millenials comes from the fact that he elevated himself above grievances. His indifference about race gave him credibility as a true catalyst for change, and importantly created a relevancy with the generation that allowed them to believe they have someone who “gets them.” Obama is a visionary in this post-grievance generation. While Hillary single-handedly achieved extraordinary gains for women’s leadership, she didn’t embrace the post-grievance zeitgeist that is fundamental to the Millennial identity. Unlike many feminists, Millennial women didn’t see her as a critical chance to save the women’s agenda. In fact they could care less that she is a woman because to them it’s not about gender, it’s about embracing their mindset.
While Hillary was by no means a battle-axe feminist, she closely aligned herself with an attitude that persists among old school feminists: that you have to fit into the man’s world. She worked too hard at aligning her persona with what she “isn’t” instead of recognizing that times have changed and being a woman is just fine. Beyond a few tears, she never carved her own authentic feminine place.
Sarah Palin, on the other hand, does a better job than Hillary of reflecting Millenials’ attitudes about being a woman. She isn’t running as a female trying to be as tough as a male – she is simply a tough female. She’s comfortable with her gender and doesn’t seem concerned about representing women’s voices. In this regard, if perhaps none other, she represents the new generation. Unfortunately for her as a candidate, she did not shed group identity altogether. She relies on class politics in her stump speeches and does not have broad appeal beyond her base. Regardless, greater subject mastery would serve her well in any future race.
The first woman president will be a full-blown post-grievance candidate, not dissimilar to Barack Obama. She will not strive to become a part of the old guard. Instead, she will rise above the fight with her own female persona naturally shining through. While there is much work to be done in the fight for equal rights, old school feminists and traditional civil rights leaders will not be able to reverse this world-view in the younger generation. Without a change in voice, they will be increasingly seen as out of touch and irrelevant, just as Hillary supporters’ post-nomination demands and Jesse Jackson’s criticisms of Barack have been met with sighs. Millennial women represent something hopeful. Instead of being dismissive of their style and approach, the old guard should count the attitude of their daughters and sons as the fruit of their efforts. This mere act of tossing away generations of grievances may seem terrifying, yet we need to better appreciate Millenial attitudes and speak to their beliefs to engage them in the work that is yet to be accomplished.
These attitudes are only one aspect of what makes this generation a magnet for politicians, innovative marketers and employers. Knowing how to leverage Millenial’s uniqueness is considered a market advantage today and soon will be cost of entry, as they grow into the largest generation ever. For more insights and guidance, contact Barbara Bylenga of Outlaw Consulting. She and her team are experts at unraveling Millenial’s attitudes and identifying implications. Marya Stark of Allegory Training trains both Boomer and Millennial clients in an innovative approach to maximizing team and individual performance in Leadership, Sales and Communications.
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