The promise of millennial power

Millennials grew up in a world on fire. Now, they're trying to transform it.

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      Tara Mahoney is a millennial—and she takes it seriously.

      “I sometimes joke that my internal age is 27, because I still feel that way,” she laughs. “I have two kids now and I have a completely different life. So that’s changed a lot, but there are parts of me that still feel an affinity to that period of time.”

      The 39-year-old built her career on finding ways to get her generation more engaged in public life. She co-founded a non-profit in 2010 called Gen Why Media dedicated to youth civic engagement, researched millennial engagement in climate action for the David Suzuki Foundation, and now works at Simon Fraser University’s Community-Engaged Research Initiative.

      During our Zoom conversation, she speaks with both the passion and exasperation of someone who has been advocating over a decade for a generation that once represented the youthful voice of the future. Now, those young voices have shifted from the aging millennials embittered by capitalism’s failures to gen-Zers, like me, who post on TikTok about destroying capitalism itself.

      Millennials, in most definitions, were born between 1981 and 1996, making them around 26 to 42 today. Several factors define the generation in the public consciousness: coming of age with the rise of digital technology, entering the workforce during the 2008 financial crisis, and being accused of killing everything from retail stores to cable TV. Their baby boomer parents long held the majority of financial, political, and social power—but that may finally be changing.

      The 2021 census revealed that, for the first time in history, millennials outnumber boomers in Metro Vancouver. While younger millennials are in their mid-20s, a lot of people still imagine the generation collectively as fresh-faced 20-somethings. To Mahoney, millennials’ connection to this period is more than pure nostalgia.

      “Millennials haven’t had the opportunity, in a lot of cases, to grow in the same way or at the same pace as their boomer counterparts. So it feels like we’re kind of younger for longer,” she explains.

      Millennials are now the largest voting bloc, the largest consumer base, and comprise the majority of the workforce. The majority of wealth is still held by their boomer parents, but this means the generation is poised to inherit the largest inter-generational wealth transfer in history. We already see this happening with millennial homeowners whose parents help with their down payment. And while some make it work without help from family, many aren’t so fortunate.

      “Most people in this city [and] in many cities can’t afford to buy a home, can’t afford to have kids in a lot of cases, and are often working precarious jobs or contract work,” Mahoney says.

      Data indicates she’s right—millennials are living with their parents longer and getting married, buying homes, and having kids later, if at all. According to FP Canada, a financial planning non-profit, millennials are simultaneously the highest-educated generation and the most in debt. These financial challenges are exacerbated in a city like Vancouver, where the gap between the median income and property values is the widest in Canada by far.

      Now that millennials are at the age where they really feel the burn of late-stage capitalism, they are more united in the fight against it, Mahoney says. “People are realizing you can’t do it alone. There’s no way that the rugged individualism of capitalism is going to work.”

      To create change, millennials go beyond established methods. “There’s the formal political institutions like voting or running for office, showing up at political meetings,” Mahoney says. “But then there’s also starting companies that offer alternative ways of doing business … or doing community-level organizing around [things like] anti-poverty or climate change … which is also super important, so we need all of it.”

      I may not be a millennial, but I have a vested interest in what they might be up to in their potential rise to power. We live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, during a period of compounding crises that seem to multiply by the year—climate, housing, financial, toxic drugs, childcare, and on, and on, and on. My fellow gen-Zers and I are entering adulthood during the second recession this century, in the wake of an ongoing global pandemic, all while the planet seems to literally be on fire more often than not. Without much political or financial power of our own, we have to look to the generation above us to pave the way for a better future.

      One such millennial trying to make a difference is Dylan Kruger—though he just barely squeaks into the demographic.

      In 2018, the Delta native became the youngest councillor elected in the city’s history at only 23. (As a 23-year-old whose mom still pays her phone bill, this is mind-blowing to me). Now 27, Kruger tells me he was the second-youngest elected councillor when he won his seat again in 2022—the top spot still being his election four years earlier.

      Kruger is part of a wave of young candidates who ran and won across BC municipalities in 2022. He says his fellow millennials are changing things, in politics and beyond.

      “They’re doing things that nobody ever thought you could do in the cities that they live in,” he suggests. “And they’re succeeding, and becoming incredibly popular for doing so.”

      It’s long been a trend for people around the age millennials are now to move from a city like Vancouver to a suburban counterpart like Delta to settle down, buy a house, and start a family. But the delay of millennial milestones isn’t exclusive to Vancouver city limits.

      “A lot of suburban cities like Delta are going to be in a bit of a crisis situation unless they actually really act on the housing supply,” Kruger says. “Our school population in Delta peaked in the mid-1980s and it’s been declining ever since.”

      With a lack of affordable housing available, a suburb like Delta isn’t as attractive to young couples and families. And without school-age children driving the city’s growth, it’s harder to get funding, not only for schools, but for transit and infrastructure.

      “Communities that grow get nice things,” Kruger says.

      To facilitate growth, he believes we need to reimagine what we expect from suburban life.

      “A lot of suburban communities were historically bedroom communities,” Kruger continues. “You sleep here, but you live in other parts of the city. But if we really want to attract young families back to places like Delta, how can we reinvigorate our downtown [spaces]… and create that sense of vitality that suburbs have traditionally not had?”

      Adam Mills, another barely-there millennial on the other side of the spectrum, is trying to do exactly that. Mills is 42 and a co-founder of Four Winds Brewing, a craft brewery tucked into an industrial area in North Delta. I make the half-hour journey from my Vancouver apartment to meet him there, and when I mention it’s actually my first time in Delta he replies, “It’s not as far as you thought, right?”

      Adam Mills' new Tsawwassen hospitality venture could breathe new vitality into the quiet suburb.
      Alison Page

      Mills lived in Vancouver until returning to Delta, the community where he was raised, shortly after opening Four Winds with his brother in 2013.

      “We kind of decided we would want to be the community brewery for the community that we grew up in, in the community that we’re gonna raise our kids in,” Mills says. “There’s also opportunity here to be involved in the next phase of placemaking.”

      It’s a stereotype that millennials love craft beer, but in BC, it rings true. Mills tells me that when Four Winds first opened they were one of about 50 breweries in the province. Now, that number has jumped to over 220.

      After a decade in business, the Mills family is expanding with an ambitious new 8,600-square-foot hospitality venture in the developing community of Southlands Tsawwassen. Expected to open in 2024, Four Winds Southlands is set to be a giant farm-to-table-esque restaurant and brewery that will, as Mills puts it, “use the land as much as we possibly can to inspire our food and beer.” That’s pretty much the most millennial thing I can imagine. And it’s the exact thing Kruger and Mills think will breathe new life into their beloved suburb.

      “Just establishing a few culinary destinations or hospitality destinations in the community helps anchor that cultural change,” Mills notes. “When more establishments open up, people aren’t longing for what they’ve missed in the city.”

      Millennials who still enjoy city life are also reimagining their communities. Matthew Norris, a member of Lac La Ronge First Nation and president of the Urban Native Youth Association, is—you guessed it—also a millennial.

      Like Kruger, 33-year-old Norris was one of the youngest candidates who ran for council in his city in 2022. But unlike Kruger, he didn’t win a seat. Norris tells me that when OneCity Vancouver first approached him to run, he was hesitant. As a (in his words) “relatively young” Indigenous person, Norris was a bit disenchanted with politics.

      “When you don’t see your community represented in municipal politics or party structures or as elected officials, you’re inherently skeptical of those institutions,” he tells me on Zoom. “I certainly have been. And so a lot of my work has been outside of those institutions, pushing for change from the outside.”

      But after meeting with OneCity, he changed his tune.

      “I saw a genuine commitment there to doing things differently, to push the envelope on Indigenous rights,” he says.

      As an urban Indigenous millennial, Norris was in a unique position to represent two intersecting underserved communities.

      “A lot of people my age have experienced a lot of the same kind of issues that, coming from the Indigenous community, are very similar in terms of lack of representation and lack of voice,” he offers.

      Norris also highlights how Indigenous people and millennials (and young people in general) are disproportionately affected by the same issues.

      “You’re actually experiencing the impacts of poor decision making, like with the housing crisis, with climate change, with the growing impacts of systemic racism, and the opioid epidemic,” he notes. “And it’s affecting us now more than it ever has before.”

      Now both groups, and those at their intersection, increasingly collaborate thanks to the education efforts of Indigenous activists. “Our values were always aligned, we just didn’t realize it,” says Norris.

      Despite not winning a position on council, Norris continues to push for change from the outside and encourages other young people to do the same. “When you look at … how voices get heard within our democratic institutions, either through public hearings or organizing, it’s very much structured against us,” he says. “And so I think there’s a responsibility on us to start organizing or face the consequences if not, but there’s also a responsibility on our institutions to better accommodate our voices.”

      The millennial-dominated Vancouver Tenants Union (VTU) isn’t holding its breath for institutions to start accommodating them. While it doesn’t have official collective bargaining power, the volunteer-run advocacy group organizes for the rights of tenants, renters, the unhoused, and anyone else with precarious housing.

      To Lillian Deeb, a VTU organizer on the steering committee, this work is more important now than ever.

      “I think we’re all very afraid of getting pushed out. It really feels like the city is trying to push you out all the time,” they say.

      Beyond helping people combat illegal rent increases, renovictions, and landlord disputes, VTU pushes for a more community-oriented approach to city life. “It’s a place to manifest the different world that you want to see,” Deeb says. “You really get to imagine, ‘What is the city I want to live in? What is the neighbourhood I want to live in?’”

      VTU is trying to turn this imagined future into reality. On May 25, the organization hosted its first community council at 105 Keefer Street, the proposed site of a new luxury condo development the group has been advocating against since 2017. The first-of-its-kind community council was a grassroots effort to show solidarity against gentrification in Chinatown ahead of the city’s development permit board meeting on May 29. (The permit meeting ran long, and is set to continue on June 12.)

      “We want to delegitimize the city’s process, which is super-inaccessible,” Jade Ho, another VTU organizer, tells me before the event. “We want to have a say about what’s going on within our community.”

      I arrive at the community council early and watch as hundreds of people fill Chinatown Memorial Plaza under the hot afternoon sun. Seniors sit in fold-out chairs, the oldest of whom is announced to be 107, while younger attendees line the perimeter.

      Three presenters, Ho included, stand at microphones and deliver the entire two-hour council meeting in three languages: English, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

      “Just to show that this is possible, we can do things this way, we can prioritize people’s access,” Ho says.

      The trio joke that when they started campaigning against 105 Keefer, they were known as the young people organizing with the seniors. “After seven years … we’re not that young anymore.”

      Volunteers hand out red and green cards for everyone to use in the vote. When prompted about whether they are for or against the condo development, a sea of red fills the crowd.

      Whether the outcome is acknowledged in any official capacity remains to be seen, but Deeb says recognition from the city would be an encouraging step.

      “My experience engaging with the city … it’s actually very disempowering,” they say. “And so seeing a city where something like the community council … would be the decision, that would be a cool thing. I would love to see that.”

      Millennials are poised to change the status quo—from the city to the suburbs, within formal institutions and outside of them. I finished all my interviews by asking people if they think millennials will actually follow through on this potential.

      Kruger hesitates to make a solid prediction.

      “I hope that with increased representation, and this generational shift that’s happening,” he suggests, “that we’re really going to blow up the way that we make our decisions and start making decisions that are reflective of the entire community’s needs, as opposed to the privileged few that won the housing lottery.”

      To Norris, radical change requires radical action.

      “I think we have a lot of power and opportunity as an age group to make change if we want to,” he says. “But it does require us to get involved. It does require systemic changes, and it does require some kind of energy and organizing. Ending on a high note, I know there is so much room to make a difference.”

      For Ho, it’s their community work that keeps them going.

      “I think hope is collectively generated,” Ho says. “That’s also a reason why we need to be engaged in collective organizing—so that we can feel the hopefulness of how we can move forward.”

      I’ve decided to be hopeful, too. My path may look different from my own parents, and even from the millennials featured in this story. But if these are the people shaping Metro Vancouver, I look forward to the city’s future—and seeing what bold changes my generation can make when our time comes.