In Defense of Millennials’ Wonky “New Idealism”

by Mike Miesen

New York Times columnist David Brooks is, like many of us, a wonk. But in addition to owning a love of studies and charts, data and fact, he’s someone who seems to understand the promise and the peril of idealism; someone who could pass F. Scott Fitzgerald’s test of a first-rate intellect. He’s the sort of person who may believe that an empirically-minded idealism is not only possible, but perhaps even preferable.

So it was with a little confusion that I read his recent column on what he sees as Millennials’ preferred method of change: wonky incrementalism, as opposed to the pure, uncut idealism of his youth [1]. He treats the “wonkster [2]” and the idealist as disparate, mutually exclusive individuals, star-crossed lovers that will never be one. In doing so, I think he overlooks the development of a “New Idealism” that can be found in the social entrepreneurship sector, and he devalues the deep wells of passion that keep wonks up through the night (to read Medicaid policy papers, usually).

Brooks quotes a student of his in describing Millennials (“Cynic Kids” in her, well, cynical verbiage) as a group that “…is very conservative in its appetite for change.” Facebook changes aside, that simple statement doesn’t ring true to me; this is, after all, the same group that has been clamoring for change in the legality of same-sex marriage and for women’s equality. It seems that the Millennial generation constantly hungers and fights for change.

More to the point,

“[Millennials] are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypotheses to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

I wholeheartedly disagree with the first piece of this; in the recent past, what exemplifies idealism more than the Occupy and Arab Spring movements Brooks discusses? Whether they succeeded or failed (an open question for, at the very least, the Arab Spring), they were, in many ways, Millennial-led revolts on the status quo, full of idealism and the prospect of a better tomorrow. Both are reminiscent of the rebellions of Brooks’s youth, which he’d probably say were idealistic – loud, public, and visceral upheavals of the way things were.

But that’s only one mode of change, and Brooks has focused on it at the expense of missing out on the larger trend of New Idealism, which has often been led by Millennials. It’s sometimes quieter and more targeted than Brooks’s conception of idealism, but it’s just as able to affect real, positive change.

One component of this trend is the rise of the social enterprise, and more generally, the social entrepreneur – especially the globally-minded kind. Millennials such as Sasha Fisher, founder of Spark Microgrants, are eschewing the macro-level failures that have dotted aid’s past and instead are focusing on micro-level successes, working with communities to help find and implement solutions to their most pressing issues. These social entrepreneurs see a gap between what’s occurring and what’s possible, and work with the community to fill that gap. This is idealism at its core – but its affects change at a more-targeted, quieter scale.

Another is what I like to think of as “wonky idealism,” part of what Brooks’s article calls the “policy revolution.” It seems to me that this shift – valuing fact over opinion and evidence over rhetoric – is a natural reaction to the events of the past decade and a half.  In addition to 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Great Recession – events that have undoubtedly left a mark on Millennials’ collective psyche – the Millennial generation has also seen the unprecedented increase in political polarization and the remarkable sclerosis of our political system – its near-complete inability to get anything done.

Bereft of the belief that the political system can be changed through letter-writing campaigns and bullhorns alone, Millennials are turning to the softer, quieter advocacy of charts over chants; statistics over screaming. Idealism is in our blood, but forces outside our control have made a new approach preferable.

There are, to be sure, drawbacks to wonky idealism; with its desire for proof before action, it’s certainly capable of smothering passion and stifling the pace of change.  And the focus on quiet, steady progress often brought about by social entrepreneurs can lead to important stories not being told, to unknown needs not being addressed.

But perhaps vocal, passionate intensity of the type practiced by earlier generations isn’t the best way to enact change today, either. Because nearly everyone can broadcast an opinion at any time, the message can be drowned in a cacophony of tweets and blogs; the cream can’t rise so easily anymore, and it’s far from clear that this method is any more effective than the alternatives.

This isn’t to say that social entrepreneurship or wonky idealism are better than the vocal, passionate intensity that Brooks associates with idealism; there’s a big tent of idealists, all fighting for change their separate ways, all important in bringing about change. They’re merely different.

Perhaps the best way to look at it is this: while Millennials are a generation scarred by war, financial crisis, and an ossified political system, they are every bit – maybe more – idealistic than the generations of their older siblings, parents, and grandparents; they just tend to emphasize different modes of action, different routes to the same goals.


1.  The usual caveat applies: not all Millennials are alike, but if we zoom out far enough, we can identify macro trends that may be useful in comparing generations 

2.  N.B. Project Millennial in no way supports this term, and we vehemently discourage its use. But whatever our disagreements, Brooks and I likely agree on this: the Rise of the Wonk is an extremely fortuitous event for us both.


Mike is a healthcare consultant currently on loan to the Ugandan Ministry of Health (through a NGO), leading a project to reduce maternal mortality. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMiesen or subscribe to the blog.


2 thoughts on “In Defense of Millennials’ Wonky “New Idealism”

  1. Erik says:

    I think because of the extremes we see on a daily basis, an approach using Idealistic Moderation is pretty sound. I agree with you that it seems like it is ‘more’ so than in generations past but still not being out right radical.

    No one likes the guy yelling in the room, they lose respect, trust and feel he is just being extreme. But the guy who has his stuff together and can prove a sound point all whilst infiltrating the traditional means to do so is the one who has historically won the battle.

    I see our generation more willing than previous ones to think outside the box and take a necessary risk to improve things.

  2. alsanblog says:

    Everyone prefers a society that generates the greatest prosperity for the greatest number of people, but how do we get there? The Millennial crowd is supposed to be empirically driven, yet it doesn’t appear to be looking at the evidence to answer the fundamental question of how to organize for prosperity.

    Plenty of evidence shows that economies organized around competitive markets easily outperform those that are centrally planned and controlled. The actions of various countries in the last century set up a number of natural experiments that proved the superiority of market-based economies.

    Yet this blog, as well as others, implies that central planning and control is the answer, at least for healthcare. Do contributors to this blog believe that one-sixth of the world’s largest economy should be centrally controlled? Are you suggesting that American healthcare become the equivalent of the old Soviet-bloc economies?

    Maybe the contributors can explicitly state their views on the role of government in healthcare, and explain how they believe the evidence backs them up. This would be the first step in any serious attempt to evaluate healthcare policy.

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