MILLENNIALS and politics aren’t exactly a match made in heaven.
Where the millennial is a technologically-fluent selfie-obsessed narcissist, political activism seems to require the opposite: an unselfish empathy towards the well-being of society acted through the modes provided by the democratic institutions of this country. At first glance, so contradictory are these two concepts that the phrase “politically-conscious millennial” sounds like a laughable oxymoron.
Gen X and above love describing millennials as “narcissistic”, “spoiled”, “shallow”, etc. A summary of online literature paint millennials as the “Me Generation” of lazy entitled brats glued to their phones. Hardly the characteristics of a politically active, socially conscious group.
Yet, every time I pop into Facebook, someone (a millennial) is sharing an article about the deplorable livelihood of the orang asli, Malaysia’s oftentimes sidelined indigenous community.
On WhatsApp recently, a high school friend (a millennial) invited me to tutor refugee kids over the weekend.
At work, colleagues (millennials) pool money to buy lunch from a social enterprise working with cooks from marginalised communities to empower them financially.
Sharing a story on Facebook is advocating for a cause. The brats may be on to something there – the Pew Research Center recently found that the majority of users feel social media help to get people involved with issues they care about. Tutoring refugee kids is directly bringing education, a fundamental human right, to children. Buying from a socially-conscious enterprise is “buycotting” – a direct vote with your wallet. The methods may not be watertight effective but the intention is obvious.
These premature notions of millennials’ “apathy” or “political ignorance” may have arisen from using the wrong denominator to gauge millennials’ political voices and activities.
It fails or refuses to recognise that technology and social media are valid and useful tools for advocacy. It maintains that the only way to bring social change has to be through traditional institutions – via your elected member of Parliament, your local community representative or a political party. It sees the speed and ease of the activities as lacking depth and commitment, not merely as the fruits of the exponential breakthrough in technology.
Sure, some traditional forms of political activity do shake the system more than social media activism, or what some would like to call “slacktivism”. Top of these can be seen from the gravity and impact of mass street demonstrations such as the student protests during the Vietnam War era and the Malaysia’s Reformasi demonstrations of 1999.
But to ignore the changing scene of youth political consciousness or activism and to continue testing it via outdated gauges is a big mistake. To then conclude that the millennial is politically ignorant at worst or politically incoherent at best is an even bigger mistake.
Doing so masks important facts and statistics from being highlighted and debated in public. In the context of this country, we should look at the near doubling of the number of social enterprises in recent years (from say 2009 to now, for example).
It is also worth noting that Malaysia is now one of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of volunteering as measured through Gallup’s Civic Engagement Index.
And what about this statistic: 43 percent of Malaysian social enterprise (the median age of which is 34.5 years old) leaders are women. This is nearly four times more women in leadership positions compared to only 13 percent female participation in ownership of private sector firms, according to the World Bank Group.
These details are significant; they show the changing, and sometimes even revolutionary, voices and actions of the Malaysian millennial.
If only the different generations would try listening harder to one another, perhaps a lot more can be done for those who need them most.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent