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There is no doubt millennials are coming to dominate the marketplace.
As consumers, investors, and employees they are shaping corporate behaviours and driving for-profit institutions toward better citizenship through their concern for corporate social responsibility, triple bottom lines, socially responsible investing and social enterprise.
Millennial consumers want to know that their purchases are morally sound; investors, that their investments do more than just make them a profit; and employees, that their work does more than just provide them with a pay cheque. And companies are having to rapidly respond to these desires in order to attract millennial dollars and recruits.
However, millennials are not coming to dominate governments in the same way or at the same speed, despite governments being universally the single most powerful institution in their respective societies around the globe.
Despite infrequent bumps in millennial turnout – for example, during the 2015 federal election – and the fact that millennials will form the largest voting age block by the 2019 election, older generations who vote in consistently higher numbers still present a safer bet for political parties seeking power. In short, as voters, political candidates, and public servants, millennials have not been nearly as influential as they have as consumers, investors, and employees.
Their reluctance is understandable based on their beliefs. Millennials value transparent and accessible institutions that clearly demonstrate what tangible impact their money or effort is having on the wider world. By contrast, government and its attendant institutions are notoriously opaque and remote and occasionally consume great amounts of resources while producing very little tangible benefit for citizens at large.
It is often tremendously difficult to draw a simple connection between influencing government policy through voting in an election, debating in the legislature, or working in a government department and making a direct difference in people’s lives. Getting the government to do things is simply more difficult, more frustrating, and takes longer than other institutions.
But millennial reluctance to more heavily engage in politics and government is also ironic, considering no institution impacts the issues millennials care about more than their governments. Three examples of widespread millennial priorities convincingly make the case.
First, the ongoing destruction of the global environment resulting from the diffusion of industrial civilization is proceeding apace, despite millennials’ environmentally-friendly consumer tastes. The fact is, without broad public support for governments to put sharp price hikes on environmentally harmful activities through externalities regulation, the likelihood of averting environmental catastrophe is slim to none.
Second, inequality in the distribution of wealth continues to rise despite millennial social justice activism, desire to see inequality addressed, and comfort with more economically interventionist government. Instead of government redistributing enough wealth from the rich to the poor to provide universal income security, it frequently redistributes wealth from the public to private and special interests, including corporations. And no amount of corporate philanthropy, given back after the fact, will even that out.
Third, embracing the value of social diversity and a more open immigration system are hotly contested despite millennials favouring both. The rise of nationalist populism worldwide is driven largely by voters of older generations while millennials are far more cosmopolitan and globalist by comparison. Despite increasingly pervasive diversity-friendly ad campaigns targeted at millennial consumers, governments are, by and large, seeking to please the older generations that vote more dependably.
These three examples demonstrate that the affect millennials are having in the marketplace will have no material consequences on their priorities without equivalent influence over government. Improving corporate citizenship is good, so far as it goes, but its impact is miniscule compared to the impact that can be made by changing public institutions.
The annual sales of Walmart roughly equal the gross domestic product of Belgium; Apple’s, roughly equal that of Portugal. Companies simply do not have the same heft and weight as governments that finance public services and regulate public affairs.
Millennials appear to be slowly waking up to the possibilities to be had by taking the reins of government. Moving a mountain an inch is far more important than moving a molehill a mile. But until they capture governments, they’ll remain effectively powerless.
Matt Risser is a frequent radio and newspaper commentator on issues related to governance, policy and democratic reform.