Before this week's national elections, talking heads
concurred that the youth vote, defined primarily as those between 18 and 29, would
not have nearly the same impact on the outcome as it did in 2008. That opinion
was fueled, in part, by the common understanding that while legions of new
voters, mostly millennials, registered to vote in 2008, not as many as
anticipated actually made it to the polls. Even fewer showed up for the midterm
Lately, we heard about an "enthusiasm gap" in which
young-voter apathy would give way to a decline in participation. But, through
the last election cycle, the Arab Spring, the Kony initiative and the Occupy
movement, it seems that our young fellow citizens learned something about
influence beyond the kind they engender among their friends on Facebook.
Indeed, there may have been an enthusiasm gap but, for young
voters this week, there was certainly no action gap.
I had the unique opportunity to experience Election Night as
the only boomer among a group of eight college undergrads, all women, in their
apartment on the campus of the University of Michigan. Little did they
know that I was observing and prodding them like a focus group moderator.
What struck me was their intense emotional attachment to
what was unfolding before them, and their ability to absorb and disseminate
information seamlessly and quickly. They took every moment dead seriously,
couching their comments for maximum effect on their peers, all the while
buzzing and bleeping with updates emanating from their laptops, mobile devices
and the television (bouncing in warp speed between CNN, Fox News and, of
course, Jon Stewart). Tweets were shouted. Facebook updates were praised and
ridiculed. It was a boiler room of hyper-connectedness, a powerful
experience being played out in the quick-chat sliver of real-time reality that
now constitutes the integration of their physical and digital lives.
Two-screen viewing? This was super-charged three, four and
five-screen media consumption at work.
And every one of them voted.
Now we know that initial estimates place the 18-29 vote at
nearly one in five of all those who went to the polls, about 10% higher than in
2008. Young-voter participation appears to have been particularly strong on
college campuses in key swing states. Overall, seeing as those young
voters went by about a 2-1 margin for the president, one can posit with
reasonable assurance that they played a key role in the outcome.
Brand marketers would do well to take heed, since only some
of them knew before Tuesday that Gen Ys are just as likely to use their social
power to decide which movie to attend or which airline to fly as they are to
express their political ideals.
For a large segment of young America, social beliefs
resonate in how they express their aspirations and how they buy. They are doing
it through new forms of activism, which, like most everything they do, is
powered by an innate attachment to technology. In our recent Cassandra
Report, "The Good Guide" study, two out of three Gen Ys said they believe
that "a person on a computer, being aware and spreading the word" can create
more change than "a person on the street, rallying and protesting." Many
struggling retailers can tell you how that translates to their consumption
In fact, we found that Gen Ys remain extremely passionate
about changing the world in positive ways. Moreover, social media has given
them the platform to live their lives on display in ways that draw little
distinction between airing their support for a candidate, a cause, a team, a
pair of shoes or a birthday.
For Gen Ys, knowledge, in itself, is power, so having
greater awareness of the issues that affect them means that they are
increasingly likely to act on those issues. It's little surprise, then, that
more than half say they would take a pay cut to work somewhere that is
positively changing the world, 59% say that a company's ethics and practices
are important in deciding what brands to buy, and nearly one-third make it a
point to buy from brands whose values are similar to their own.
Gen Y has made it clear that they are a force to be reckoned
with, and brands as well as candidates need to continue to examine and invest
in finding ways to engage and connect with this socially conscious tech-driven
generation. Why? Because by 2020, today's Gen Ys will represent 40% of the
electorate, twice that of today, not to mention more than $400 billion in purchasing
As Gen Y's social consciousness grows along with its
spending power, their commitment to social change will be felt on the critical
issues that shape our world. They have proven that they are not the
"slacktivists" many have thought them to be, but rather a generation that
stands committed to changing the world around them for the better.
Group, a division of Creative Artists Agency, is a youth-focused,
research-based consumer insights company. It publishers the quarterly Cassandra
Report on youth trends, and the Cassandra Daily email newsletter and website
that reports on social and cultural trends.