Dear Generation Disaffected:

By Rinku Sen Apr 15, 2008

Recently, I took one of our young interns out for lunch. His program requires a mentor, and I was it. I asked what his plans were after he wrapped up with us. He replied with some business about tending bar in Berlin. “I feel disaffected,” he said. “Nothing I see out there seems like its actually going to work.” None of the work available to him, particularly in the non-profit world, seemed likely to produce the kind of radical transformation he sought. My young colleague is talented, smart and quite hard working. He looked sad telling me that he couldn’t find a place to contribute, and I was sad too — for him and for us. First, I developed a rational analysis, looking for historical and contextual reasons for this generation’s cynicism. When I was coming into politics in the mid-1980’s, we were 10 years closer to the Civil Rights Movement, cities were just beginning to elect their first mayors of color, and, although there was a lot of grumbling about affirmative action and multicultural education, the attack on “political correctness” hadn’t yet gained traction. We actually felt hopeful, even though there was so little political activity that ours was called the “Me Generation.” Twenty-four years later, the limitations of those victories are increasingly clear. We’ve lost affirmative action in four states (and counting), some of our mayors have turned out to be either corrupt or simply ineffective, and legal decisions have gutted many of our civil rights laws. Maybe young people can be forgiven for wondering if this is the best we can do. But that’s not the whole answer. It’s also just easier to be disaffected than to engage, easier to critique than to construct. Engaging means that much of the time, we scramble trying to figure out the right thing to do; we settle for less than what we really want and need; we fight each other over credit and “space” rather than conservatives over policies and programs. My intern can come off blustery and entitled, but what I mostly felt from him was a deep desire to belong to something that could make him proud, and, if he couldn’t, to protect himself from that reality. I think he feels this way because somehow his heart knows there’s less pain in it. But there’s also less joy. What I remember the most about my early political work was how intensely fun it was, and what a relief it was to be connected to something beyond me. We cried over plenty of less-than-satisfying wins, but at least we did it together. What we learned is now reflected in the places where new ideas are taking root – in the growth of the green economies movement, in the rush of immigrant marchers calling for legalization, and in the huge numbers of people engaging in this election cycle. These aren’t perfect political moments, but they’re our political moments, and I’m excited about them. It’s hard to give “lessons learned” the same importance as “victories won,” yet learning is the very thing that makes victory possible. Still, everyone has the right to learn what they want to learn, not what I think they should learn. My colleague and I both feel the urgent need to create new models and strategies. I’ll look forward to hearing his ideas. I guess we’ll be doing that over a beer.