It’s Time to Engage and Listen to Millennials

Posted by Stan Rosenberg, Dec 20, 2016 0 comments

When we hear about the Millennial Generation—those born between 1980 and 2000—we very often hear only the negative characteristics of this age group.

It’s not uncommon for our media and popular culture to generalize Millennials as lazy and narcissistic, with an outsized sense of entitlement, interested only in their next opportunity to take a selfie. But this is the largest, best educated and most college debt-ridden generation in Western history, and its members possess a number of positive characteristics that the arts community needs to understand and to which they need to respond.

Based on a growing body of research, Millennials have emerged as creative, adventurous, civic minded, tech savvy, socially aware, and consider themselves global citizens, to name a few of their positive characteristics and drivers.

As a cohort, they are open to change and to experiences that help them grow personally, and they want to learn about others. They would rather volunteer in their community than vote. They wouldn’t think about buying a newspaper and can’t wait for the next item to pop up on their electronic device, from which they get and share most of their information. And to say they are impatient for the rest of us to catch up with social change is an understatement! They are also frustrated with the Boomers and the Gen Xers because of all the problems we have passed on to their generation, not the least of which are climate change and student debt.

All of these characteristics and pressures make it clear that we ignore and underestimate this generation at our peril. They are not just the future. They are the largest living cohort of Americans!

That’s why last year, as president of the Massachusetts Senate, I launched the Millennial Engagement Initiative to listen to their concerns and brainstorm with them ways to address those concerns, as well as ways to get and keep Millennials engaged in our democratic process.

What does the arts community need to do going forward?

  • Recognize Millennials are your future, and the future is here.
  • Appreciate and value the contributions of your current audiences, board members, volunteers, and financial supporters, but start the process of engaging Millennials in every aspect of your planning and work as soon as possible.
  • Don’t just engage them as interns and volunteers; involve them in governance—put a couple on your board.
  • Don’t just talk about how to program to bring them into your venue; involve them in strategic and program planning.
  • Recognize that Millennials are the majority of your future audiences. Develop strategies for communicating with them now, and make relevant experiences available to them at a cost they can bear given the college debt with which they are struggling.

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget about arts advocacy. If the national trend is consistent with what is happening in Massachusetts, a significant and growing percentage of newly elected legislators are Millennials. Millennial arts voices can begin to have a significant impact on state arts policy and funding. We need to get them to the table and engaged.

Such a youth-oriented approach could provide the arts community with valuable marketing insights, and could provide an additional connection to the community, which could lead to the discovery of untapped talent and support.

If you haven’t done so, it’s time to engage and listen to Millennials. The future is here!

Stan Rosenberg is President of the Massachusetts State Senate and an Americans for the Arts Fellow.

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