The Millennials: Pragmatism and Idealism

fast future[disinfo ed.’s note: In Fast Future, Millennial writer and filmmaker, David Burstein examines how his generation is profoundly impacting politics, business, technology, and culture. The Millennials have been called, entitled, narcissistic, “the worst employees in history”, “trophy kids”, and even “the dumbest generation.” But, argues Burstein, the Millennial Generation’s unique blend of civic idealism and savvy pragmatism, combined with their seamless ability to navigate the 21st century world – where constant and fast change is the new reality–enables them to overcome the short-term challenges of a deeply entrenched country and begin to address our world’s long-term challenges. With eighty million Millennials (people who are today eighteen to thirty years old) coming of age and emerging as leaders in America alone, this is the largest generation in U.S. history, by 2020, its members will represent one out of every three adults in the country. They are more ethnically and racially diverse than their elders, they are the first generation to come of age in a truly global world, and the first to come of age in the new digital era. Millennials have begun their careers amidst a recession which has seen record youth unemployment levels, yet they remain optimistic and many have turned that optimism into entrepreneurialism. The following is an excerpt from Fast Future.]


Pragmatism and idealism are often viewed as lying at opposite ends of the continuum of political, economic, social, and cultural change. Throughout much of the 1950s, in post–World War II America, the pendulum swung very far in the direction of pragmatism: society was led by a deep focus on careers, families, automobiles, homes, and a general mentality of personal success, “getting ahead,” and sharing in the abundant and growing economic pie. This was an approach to life leavened by comparatively little idealism about the possibilities for progress in the outside world.

Just a decade later, by the late 1960s, many young people were advocating total revolution and frontal assault on capitalism and every manifestation of “the system” and its values. Extreme action, some believed, was the best way to change society. The pendulum had now swung very far toward idealism, with pragmatic concerns frequently thrown over- board into a sea of angry marchers and demonstrators who believed that only hyperbolic rhetoric and action in the streets could bring about change. The cultural energies today are quite different, and the national agenda has been significantly transformed. Today’s millennials generally view change in society as a project to work on, not something to demand.

This is not to say there are no protests and demonstrations any- more, or that no one in the Millennial generation believes in revolution. But while there are many Millennial activists who are passionate about their causes and about achieving large-scale social change over time, there is only a small minority who would identify themselves as radicals or revolutionaries, or who believe in putting every issue on the table now and fighting to overturn the entire system. The Occupy Wall Street movement was one instance of a handful of radicalized millennials, but even that movement had its pragmatic side (organizing daily life in New York’s Zuccotti Park, for example). In any event, even the Occupy protests of late 2011 all but disappeared by the spring of 2012.

In the Arab Spring, millennials were actively protesting with the idealistic goal of removing the dictators in charge of their countries. However, these Millennials were also pragmatic in that they intention- ally limited their goals to the removal of dictators and did not attempt to articulate or gain support for a full program of social change that would inevitably need to follow. Pragmatic idealism was also on display in the blending of online and offline tactics that were used in organizing the Arab uprisings of 2011–2012. Pragmatic idealists are at the center of many of today’s youth-led movements, and their thinking and life experiences are very different from those of the radicals who dominated the movements for social change in the 1960s.

While many complex and conflicting trends were at work in the ’80s and ’90s, it is fair to say that the Generation Xers who emerged from those decades had a different mindset than either the Boomers who came before them or the Millennials who would come after. The worldview of the Xers mixed nihilism, anger, cynicism, and irony in ways not seen before, as well as a new ultra-pragmatism bred by the new avenues toward extreme wealth open to young people who went into careers in business and finance. As Julie Barko Germany, a member of Generation X, says, “I wish I had been born a Millennial. It would have been so much easier to accomplish the goals I believe in if my generation had benefited from both the idealism and the practical thinking of the Millennials.”

While there were moments in the ’60s and in other eras when pragmatism and idealism were combined and balanced, they have not been fused together in the prevailing mindset within a rising generation until now. In our modern world, the most complex questions require a meaningful mix of an idealistic vision with a pragmatic approach. The possibilities for success in solving long-intractable problems will be vastly expanded if Millennials can break down the wall between ideal- ism and pragmatism to allow the ideas and energy from both sides of the equation to flow freely. We know that, in order to effect change on issues we care about, we have to master the workings of our society’s existing institutions. As Marci Baranski, twenty-five, observes, “Our generation is beginning to internalize the ideals of social justice and environmental conservation. Though we may not be acting out the way past generations have, we now have the option of having a career based on sustainability—whether it is in business, politics, engineering, or science. . . . We are not passive on these pressing issues; we are sim- ply learning to work within the system. A few years of college activism just isn’t going to cut it. We are aiming for change on a larger scale. We also understand that these changes may take the rest of our lives to accomplish. And that’s why we want to go into careers where we could be contributing to those changes on a lifelong basis.”3

Millennials have a high degree of trust in their society’s institutions. A Pew Research Center study found that Millennials are “more supportive of business than their elders. A higher percentage of Millennials than other cohorts agrees that ‘business corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest.’” This feeling is shared by 44 percent of Millennials, compared with 35 percent of gen Xers and boomers and 32 percent of the Greatest Generation.4 We don’t blindly trust these institutions; we understand their limitations and know that greed and corruption are inevitable, and thus we are not shocked by scandals and crises.

But we also know that these institutions can be compelled to per- form better and to make fairer, more just decisions. We can and are creating our own institutions and organizations, and at the same time, we’re working alongside and inside established ones. Our generation, just like any demographic group, has extremists on the Right and the Left, young ideologues as well as young pragmatists. An effort to re- establish Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the legendary student organization that was the most visible organization on the campus Left in the 1960s, has produced about forty campus chapters around the country. On the Right, a small number of Millennials have been active in the Tea Party movement. But SDS is barely on the radar screen even on the campuses where it is active, and when asked in 2012 survey con- ducted by CIRCLE, only 10.8 percent of Millennials identified them- selves as members of the Tea Party.5 But in a period of unprecedented polarization, the youth demographic is less polarized, less focused on what divides us, and more open to intelligent compromise.

A 2010 Pew Research Center study concluded that the Millennial demographic is “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.”6 In opinion polling, Millennials exhibited a striking openness and even consensus on issues that have been at the center of the polarization of American politics. Not only have they declined en masse to engage with divisive movements like the Tea Party, but they also are less divided on the social issues that have played a key role in our polarization. For example, 69 percent of Millennials support same-sex marriage, compared to 38 percent of seniors and 59 percent of the American public overall.7

The same spirit of pragmatic idealism is responsible for the Millennials’ optimistic attitude about their economic prospects, even in the depths of a lingering recession that has hit our generation hard and diminished our prospects of finding our first jobs. The same Pew study found that although Millennials’ “entry into careers and first jobs has been badly set back by the Great Recession . . . they are more upbeat than their elders about their own economic futures as well as about the overall state of the nation.”8

Millennials are part of the quiet progression toward significant, scalable, and lasting change, and they are learning that they can do extraordinary things when they mobilize their peers.

3. Marci Baranski, Facebook post, n.d.
4. Paul Taylor and Scott Keeter, eds., The Millennials: Confident. Connected.
5. Open to Change, Pew Research Center, Washington, DC, February 24, 2010,
6. “Romney Trails Among Young Adults,” Center for Information and Re- search on Civic Learning and Engagement, Tufts University, Medford, MA, July 31, 2012,
7. Taylor, The Millennials.
8. Damla Ergun, “Strong Support for Gay Marriage Now Exceeds Strong


Excerpted from Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaping Our World, by David D. Burstein, (Beacon Press 2013). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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8 Comments on "The Millennials: Pragmatism and Idealism"

  1. haroldheck | Apr 16, 2013 at 5:23 pm |

    who writes this crap? pragmatism IS a variety of idealism. it takes little consideration for the objective conditions, and relies solely upon the subjectivity for determining validity and “truth.” pragmatic thought has a tendency to lead its adherents toward a fascistic worldview.

    • The millennial pragmatism also accounts for science, technology…such as digital media allowing for easy access to information. This especially makes us wiser- faster. Sure it can lead to a fascistic worldview, but it doesn’t always have to. Its really up to you 😉

      • haroldheck | Apr 16, 2013 at 10:31 pm |

        you have no clue what pragmatism is. it is a mirror reflection of vitalism, an influence on both nietzsche and the nazi movement. pragmatism is a crock of shit, and always will be. if these words fall upon deaf ears then you have a choice: live in a bubble, or study more; “its really up to you ;)”

  2. and then someone had a book cover saying: if it’s too good, ideal, or solid to be false, then it is false. and no one judged it. so it became an amendment. “This amendment is false.” then the enclave came. all over. again. and then? and then people figured out how thievery hides in nature. again.

  3. Whenever I read a story like this I can’t help but think the author wants the younger generation to do all the hard work of political reform for them.

  4. seamless ability to navigate the 21st century world. . .this whole piece is cliche gibberish. what is seamless ability? anyone?

    ability to navigate the 21st century world – See more at:
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  5. Alan Morse Davies | Apr 17, 2013 at 5:06 pm |

    Never in history has a new generation been viewed positively by the current generation in power.

    It’s always misunderstanding and fear, characterized by a desire to simplify the new generation (as if there’s a fixed time for being part of that) as having shared values, mostly focusing on the extreme values and applying them to everyone else

    Beatniks! Hippies! Skinheads! Hoodies!

    You were either for or against. It’s a media thing, it is entirely unrelated to real people.

    This is just the same speculative bullshit.

    Top line survey numbers do not inform how societies develop.

    The U.S. is driven by minorities (not ethnic). Corporations and their lobbyists. Rich people. Foreign rich people.

    Oh wait, I’ve just sent a response to a post that made no fucking sense.

    I would encourage you to study rational reasoning as opposed to throwing together a fruit salad of conjecture based on top-line market research.

    Where were the qualitative interviews to dig down into why people said what they said?

    It’s clear you have no understanding of how to interpret market research.

    Whilst if we met face to face I would probably agree with you on a few things, badly made arguments (no matter the intention) drive me mad.

    76% of cats 4-6 enjoy farting.
    62% of cats 4-6 will not fight with dogs.

    Future cats aged 4-6 will fart without fighting dogs.

    Can you see that this is not logical?

    Can we get a Venn diagram for every question on the survey please?

    I also want to see the one for cats.

  6. Alan Morse Davies | Apr 17, 2013 at 5:35 pm |

    I smell bullshit. I smell reading the top line results of a survey and believing them to be true. I smell making an argument based on the majorities of answer 5 and and 12 being the same people. Can we get a Venn diagram?

    I smell thinking that a majority can take or hold power.

    I despair. “Millennials” are just people that were born within a period that others have defined. This is an arbitrary creation. Why not define them based on numerology? Anyone with a 7 in their birth date is part of the 7s?

    We should never predict the future of our society based on what people say they think in surveys, we should probably try to look at what they actually do.

    Surveys are very heavily socialized, it’s about appearance, actions less so because there are so many and often they’re not seen.

    Your argument is a fruit salad of bullshit.

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