Kings of Wall Street Beware Millennials Gone Mad

Palace of Versailles

The best part of learning history is realizing how much of what happened in the past echoes in events and decisions of our own day. Last week Ken Burns’ new documentary series, “Prohibition,” spelled out the unintended consequences of  a well-meaning effort to fight an alarming social ill. The sad lesson about what happens when we attempt to ‘legislate morality’ still resonates.

A Turning Point in the French Revolution

I just learned that one event in 1790, over a year after the storming of the Bastille, turned out to be pivotal in securing the gains of the Revolution. This event, related in Paris: Capital of Europe by Johann Wilmm, seems eerily reminiscent of the current gatherings on Wall Street:

[On the morning of October 5] “A large gathering of people and unusual excitement filled the square in front of the Hotel de Ville, when several large groups of women, who had gathered in the districts, began to arrive; they asked to be admitted to the Hotel de Ville and stated that they wished to speak to the mayor and representatives of the Commune to inform them that they had decided to march to Versailles. They added that they would not permit any men to join them.”

This spontaneous movement of women had no leader and no demands, just a sense that something was not right.Ultimately, the National Guard did join the women’s march, and the rest as they say, “is history.” The author writes:

“In the revolutionary history of Paris there had not been, nor was there ever again, anything like that mass action of October 5. All of Paris went to Versailles – for reasons that varied greatly and saved the Revolution by bringing the king back to Paris in triumph.”

On the evening of October 5, Louis XVI gave his written agreement to the decrees issued by the National Assembly between August 4 and 11. Not many hours earlier he had said he would never consent to these regulations. Furthermore, Louis agreed to move back to Paris, and so did the National Assembly. They all set out on October 6 and that evening the king in Paris “as a prisoner of his people.” Three years later in 1793 he was executed, as every 8th grader knows!

The Modern Day Parallel

Fast forward two centuries and we see some startling parallels between the October Parisian women’s march of 1790 and the October Occupy Wall Street events of 2011. Could this leaderless, demandless group ultimately do what no political party has yet accomplished? We will see. But meanwhile, I think it is foolish of politicians and pundits to dismiss it. Something is not right, and the people know it.   If there was a King Louis in New York, he would be on his way to Washington.

Millennials (Finally?) On the Move

Collectively, marketers know Millennials are a potent force. They are a large cohort, more homogenous than older cohorts due to their relative similarity in life stage and upbringing,  and uniquely empowered through technology to ensure their voices are heard. What has been more surprising up until now is why they haven’t mobilized. I speculated  in the past that it may be that they are less comfortable advocating on their own behalf than that of others. Now that the economy has given them a big enough cause, the time may have come for them to mobilize.

It is characteristic of Millennials that their movement is relatively calm, leaderless and still collaborating on its agenda. It may take a while for them to find their voice, but once found it is sure to be heard.

In fact, it is precisely their lack of unity and singular demands that may be its greatest strength, just as it did the Parisian women of 1790. Beka Economopoulous, an unofficial media spokeswoman for Occupy Wall Street, told the International Business Times that she feels the lack of one specific demand actually gives the movement more strength.

Much of the media attention on Occupy Wall Street has centered on the lack of singular demands and unification amongst the hundreds of protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park. “The longer the occupiers don’t have demands, the stronger they are,” said Economopoulous, a vice president at Fission Strategy,  a social media company specializing in strategies for nonprofits and foundations. “I don’t believe there will be a stand on one particular reform that we want to see happen. We believe the system is fundamentally broken.”

According to one young marcher, the Occupiers want to preserve a system where everyone has an opportunity to pursue their dream which now seems corrupted. The writer, Dax Devlon-Ross, claims that the movement is actually inspired by the death of Steve Jobs and his widely circulated Stanford commencement speech:

It may not seem that way today, but in the beginning nobody wanted to listen to the Occupiers either. Even now most of us still won’t allow ourselves the permission to dream of a world without widespread greed and corruption. Most of us are still resigned to just getting a piece of the pie. It’s understandable. Corruption and disillusionment rob our faith and steal our dreams.

This is where Steve Jobs fits in. In a rightly celebrated 2005 Stanford commencement address that has been viewed on Youtube some 10,000,000 times, Jobs talked about the inevitability of death and the urgency of life:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. …

Occupy Wall Street is fundamentally about breaking free of the dogmatic thinking and policy making that has resulted in a wildly unjust social and economic order.

More than Just Millennials

I’m not sure what the modern day parallel would be to the National Guard of  1790, but given the mood of the country it may not be long before others join the young marchers.

According to Pew Research, it’s not just Millennials who feel this way. A recent report eloquently spells out a high degree of disillusionment with the system, and a sense that it no longer works fairly for everyone.

  • Fifty-four percent of Americans believe “businesses make too much profit”.
  • Forty-seven percent believe Wall Street ‘hurts [the economy] more than it helps.”

What’s more, Pew says these attitudes do not divide cleanly along partisan lines.  I also suspect they do not reflect age differences. Many trends that started with Millennials sparked change in other generations. Why not this one?