The Millennial generation makes up the largest share of the workforce today. They are graduating from college, seeking jobs, influencing public policy, and fighting for activist causes, among a plethora of other activities. Knowing how Millennials think and identify themselves is crucial for any public diplomacy officer in order to reach this generation.
The Millennial generation (ages 18 to 34) are much harder to place in a category than their older Baby Boomer counterpart. The younger half identify as Millennials; the older half can’t stand the term. The wide age range makes it difficult trying to pinpoint them. But they do have one thing in common: they’re struggling.
We’re Reaching Millennials in the Wrong Way
The Foreign Service has begun to recognize the change Millennials are causing. Their digital perspective offers new and innovative ways that connect cultures. They can Google Russia’s GDP in a matter of seconds; they can interact with people hundreds of thousands of miles away; they know the weather in India with a press of a button. But despite recognizing this, the Foreign Service struggles with pinpoint who Millennials are.
Matthew Asada, Vice President at the American Foreign Service Association, makes the claim, “The Millennial generation’s general characteristics—confidence, optimism about the future, and openness to change—carry over to the workplace.” However, this statement may be subject to debate.
Millennials are overall the least likely generation to view themselves in a “more positive light.” Millennials identify as follows: self- absorbed (59%), wasteful (49%), greedy (43%), cynical (31%), idealistic (39%), entrepreneurial (35%), environmentally-conscious (40%), tolerant (33%), rigid (8%).
So even though the State Department recognizes that Millennials are different, they may not know why or how- two crucial questions that need answers.
Here’s why and how.
“For the first time in American history, a younger generation may be left off worse than the one before it.” – State of the Millennial 2016
Millennials have high levels of student debt and high levels of unemployment. This generation is more educated than its older counterparts but paid the same. The chart below demonstrates that a 30 year-old today make roughly the same amount as previous generations despite higher levels of education and higher costs of living.
Courtesy of Center for American Progress
Due to the lack of economic opportunity, Millennials experience higher levels of poverty. 6% of Millennial college graduates in 2013 lived in poverty compared to only 3% of Baby Boomers in 1979. And out of the few who are able to find jobs, 40% are underemployed.
The values America holds so dear which public diplomacy works to convey across nations, are slipping away with this generation. Only 3.6% of Americans under 30 own or have a stake in private business compared to 10.6% in 1989 despite 35% recognizing themselves asentrepreneurial.
Therefore, we can draw the conclusion that Millennials want the American dream but don’t know how to get there. And this is where public diplomacy comes in. This is why restructuring public diplomacy’s interaction with Millennials is crucial. As the largest cohort of working American people, they have the potential to carry America into the future.
A Model to Build Off Of
Saja, a Fulbright student from Iraq, boards a train in Los Angeles, California with her fellow Fulbrighters Rodrigo from El Salvador, and Lala from South Africa. Courtesy of the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.
One successful example is the Millennial Trains Project (MTP). The program brings 25 students across the United States, including Foreign Fulbright Students, to promote innovation and collaboration across cultures while showcasing the American spirit. The participants must apply with business proposals as well as share their experience on social media.
The MTP does a great job of furthering American ideals of entrepreneurship and policy while involving Millennials. This program capitalizes on the fact that Millennials view themselves as entrepreneurs (35%), crafts a program that appeals to them, publishes it through social media (which Millennials thrive on), and furthers public diplomacy goals.
Leave the ‘Old America’ Behind
In order to maintain the American Dream and values we want to share with the rest of the world, we need to recognize that most of our own people have a hard time accomplishing that dream. The concept is obscure because this generation is pessimistic due to a stagnant economy.
The biggest issue is simply that public diplomacy can’t decide what to do with Millennials. It has Twitter accounts, SMS, YouTube videos, and a multitude of other tools and platforms. But little to none of these tools reach Millennials. So then rather than continuing to ignore the largest age group, use them and craft programs to their benefit, which will in turn further our goals.
Courtesy of Generation Progress
In digital diplomacy conferences and trainings dedicate partial time to training officers on programming for Millennials.
In addition to conveying America’s goals to other nations, convey Millennials’ goals (surrounding student debt, activism, and poverty). MTP does this very strategically, specifically targeting something Millennials care about. There are simply not enough programs similar to this one.
For example: 59% of Millennials identify themselves as self-absorbed and 43% see themselves as greedy. Establishing a public diplomacy program that markets personal benefits to Millennials would attract them. Further, 35% of Millennials consider themselves entrepreneurs and 40% say they are environmentally-conscious. Crafting programs around those two issues would attract interest from Millennials as well. Perhaps, a seminar on how to keep college campuses “green”. Or a program bringing American business leaders for a summit on entrepreneurship.
This is not exclusive to America; employing these tools will help engage the world’s changing demographics.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.