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One problem, according to observers ranging from newspapers to high school and college students and even to the “belly of the beast,” Wall Street itself, is that the Occupy movement lacks strong leaders who can guide and personalize it. A large majority of the public at large and Millennials in particular (67 percent each) agrees with this assessment.
Most of the major social movements of the 20th century had charismatic leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. (civil rights) and Gloria Steinem (women’s liberation), who played this key role. But in the social network-driven 21st century, movements appear, by design, to be “leaderless,” and lacking in clear structure. They are horizontal rather than vertical.
Millennials are, in fact, a bit less concerned than other generations that the Occupy movement is “leaderless”; a slight majority of them (54 percent) either say this is a good thing or at least provides a mixture of both advantages and disadvantages. Moreover, a scattered and loose structure and lack of obvious and well-known national leaders did not prevent the tea party movement from being a major force in the 2010 midterm elections or the contest for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
A far more important concern is that about 7 in 10 Millennials cannot figure out just what the Occupy movement is and what its goals really are. In only a few scattered locations, such as college campuses in California where there was a call for tuition relief, did Occupy protestors cite definite actionable objectives or make specific demands. In contrast to the tea party's clear and consistent opposition to tax increases or “big government” programs like “Obamacare,” the goals of the Occupy movement often seem unvoiced and inchoate.
Unlike the ideologically driven Boomer Generation, which was content to use teach-ins and other talk-a-thon strategies to endlessly discuss, if not actually advance, its causes, Millennials bring a strong dose of pragmatism to their desire to change the world and would be more likely to participate in Occupy activities if they were more action-oriented.
In the end, if the Occupy movement is to become Millennial and really effect change, it must do more than simply inspire sympathy and sentiment. It must move beyond being a protest movement and become a political movement, one with specific goals that engages and alters the political process. Only by using these and other tactics to attract the Millennial Generation will the Occupy movement break out of its original, limited conception as simply being a way to express unhappiness with current economic conditions.
To fully achieve its potential, even without a permanent, physical presence in urban America, it must take the steps necessary to become a decisive, action-oriented voice within an emerging and powerful generation.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute. They are co-authors of the newly published “Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America” and “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics."