Study: Millennials Are Engaged Politically, But Don’t Call Them Activists

The latest Millennial Impact Report shows that the generation is increasingly engaged in policy issues, but associations reaching out to them still face challenges.

The 2016 election has mobilized millennials, according to a new study, moving beyond social-media “slacktivism” and into more direct activities, from voting and assembling to signing petitions and contacting legislators.

This generation is less apt to identify with the concept of being an advocate.

The 2017 Millennial Impact Report [PDF], conducted by the research firm Achieve and supported by the Case Foundation, delivers a portrait of a generation that’s generally disappointed with America’s politics: Fewer than a third of the respondents (29 percent) say the country is moving in the right direction, and nearly half (49 percent) say they are unsatisfied or extremely unsatisfied with President Donald J. Trump.

The study suggests that millennials have looked to put that disappointment into action: Two-thirds of respondents say they voted in the last election, and that voting “will lead to the change they want to see.”

There are a few catches, though, for associations looking to take advantage of this engagement. Respondents say they’re more interested in ground-level activity than the national scene: 41 percent say they support local causes, as opposed to 19 percent who say they support national causes. Furthermore, respondents are hesitant to describe themselves as full-throated advocates. Respondents are more likely to describe themselves as a “supporter” of causes and social issues (49 percent) than they are an “activist” (21 percent), “advocate” (17 percent), or “ally” (11 percent). And such “supporters” are less likely to engage in direct activities like marches or contacting representatives.

Suzanne Zurn, partner in the DC area consultancy the Three Lines Group, says the study shows that millennials are willing to engage politically, but that associations need to be careful about how they reach out to them. “Millennials are very active in educating themselves about issues and sharing what they’ve learned on social media,” she says. “Yet this generation is less apt to identify with the concept of being an advocate. For organizations seeking to engage millennials, my advice is to revisit the language you’re using to enlist their support, because there is a natural inclination for them to learn about your issues and engage. The traditional definition of an advocate is not appealing to how they operate or view their role, so to engage them we must adjust our techniques.”

Michael Grimes, a legislative assistant at the advocacy firm Federal Advocates, Inc., says he’s not surprised at the uptick in engagement: “The way politics has evolved in every part of our society whether it be through social media or sports, as we saw this past weekend, seems to be infiltrating every part of our lives, not just for millennials, but any age.” But for millennials who resist being pigeonholed as overtly political, Grimes says, associations need to use their social-media messaging to lay out personal implications of policy issues. “[Association communications] need to have more interaction, more participation, and be quicker to analyze policies and what they mean for their business,” he says. “It’s harder to do because the audience is different—it’s not a social wedge issue, it’s a policy concern.”

Associations would also do well to recognize that millennials are generally on tight budgets, Grimes adds, so communications around the word “free” are more likely to resonate and build deeper connections down the line. “Free content, whether that be conferences, webinars, or email groups, those kind of platforms and community-based systems are what would be key for me,” he says. “As millennials develop their professional careers, they will become more of a viable financial asset.”

(vasiliki/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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