Public Policy in a Millennial Era
AS THE CHALLENGES FACING AMERICA EVOLVE, the rhythm of generational cycles, reinforced by technological change, generates new ideas on how government should respond. Dissatisfaction with the status quo rises to the point where the public demands a wholesale restructuring of governmental institutions only about once every eight decades, or every “fourth turning,” to use Strauss and Howe's terminology But other aspects of public policy require more frequent finetuning to bring them in line with the public's changing attitudes and beliefs. As Millennials assert their primary electoral role over the next twenty years, the center of America's public policy debate will shift off its current liberal/conservative, Baby Boomer–dominated axis to focus on finding new ways to balance national purpose with individual involvement and decision making.
The fundamental question in American public policy is almost always about where to draw the line, or, more accurately, redraw the line, between the competing values of individual liberty and community and between the desire for both national order and local flexibility. While idealist eras are more concerned with the first tension, civic-era debates tend to focus on the latter. As a result, the expansion and contraction of policies favoring either personal liberty or community coherence have moved in harmony with the dynamics of generational change.
These same tensions will frame the debate over acceptable solutions to our country's problems in the Millennial civic era we are now entering. Old debates over social issues will fade into the background, and new questions about America's social unity and global competitiveness will move to the forefront. Proposals that are able to synthesize the two competing claims of national priorities and individual flexibility will become the preferred answers to the challenges America will face in the next two decades.