The selection of former Secretary of State Colin Powell to announce the Obama Administration's national service initiative, "Renew America Together" is much more than a smart political move. It’s a perfect down payment on the promises Obama made to his most ardent supporters, the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003).
The support of young voters was decisive in Obama's narrow nomination victory over Hillary Clinton and their 2:1 margin for him over John McCain accounted for 80 percent of his nearly nine million national popular vote lead last November. By giving Powell this important and visible role, Obama simultaneously burnishes his bipartisan credentials and demonstrates his understanding that the United States has moved to a new era dominated by the outlook of a new generation determined to make America a stronger and more unified country.
Millennials are of an archetype labeled "civic" by the seminal generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe. Like all other civic generations throughout American history, Millennials are defined by their strong desire to advance the welfare of the entire group and, by extension, all of society. The willingness of Millennials to help make things better was reflected in their enthusiastic reaction to Obama’s call during the campaign for a program aimed at young people that would help them pay for college in exchange for two years of public service, either in the military or one of the federal civilian service organizations. While the financial concerns of a generation heavily burdened by educational debt may have partially accounted for the loud applause this idea always generated, there is far more to it than self-interest.
A 2004 Harvard University Institute of Politics survey indicated that 85 percent of college-age Millennials considers public service an effective way to solve problems facing the country. A virtually unanimous 94 percent say that volunteer activity is effective in dealing with challenges in their local community.
Millennials have already clearly demonstrated their strong willingness to put these attitudes into action by participating in service programs in large numbers. In 2004, 80 percent of high school students, all of whom were Millennials, participated in community service activities. This contrasts with only 27 percent of high school students, all whom were members of the much more individualistic Generation X, that did so in 1984. Stemming from the virtually total public service participation of Millennials, by 2006 more than a quarter of those who volunteered for one of the federal government's National Service organizations (26 percent) were 16-24 year olds. That was twice the contribution of young people in 1989, when all of those in the 16-24 year old cohort were Gen-Xers.
But this won't be the first time that a civic generation has rallied to the service of America. And, it won't be the first time that a grateful country has rewarded this service. After the GI Generation great-grandparents of today's Millennials helped to defeat the Axis in World War II, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill of Rights, sent millions of returning veterans to college. This was not only a just reward for a job well done; it was also excellent public policy. By exponentially increasing the number of American college graduates and the size of the country's middle class, it paved the way for the long period of post-war growth that made the last half of the 20th century the American Century. If history is any guide, the Millennial Generation will follow in the footsteps of the GI Generation and through its dedication to public service will leave America an even stronger country than the one they inherited.