Mackenzie Wilson, a 26-year-old former warehouse worker from Sacramento, doesn’t believe in the rules of engagement that preoccupy many of her millennial counterparts in college.
She hadn’t even heard much about trigger warnings or microaggressions until recently, but thinks they sound unconstructive – she wants people to argue their ideas.
“I don’t want everybody snapping their fingers and raising their hands to talk,” she said.
This month, when thousands of people under the “Fight for $15” banner came out in cities across the country demanding a higher minimum wage, it was Wilson who led the local effort in her newest gig as a community organizer, wrangling marchers through downtown.
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It’s work that’s meaningful to her and she says she “doesn’t care if I have to receive those comments that the burger flipper wants $15. ... It’s the issues in your face that cause a conversation.”
Wilson hasn’t had a “safe space” since she was 12 – that’s when her dad lost his business and the family lost their Elk Grove home. They spent the next years bouncing around – Roseville, Oak Park – trying to get back on their feet, but never quite sticking the landing. Her parents divorced, she ended up with a GED. She took two minimum-wage jobs, working up to the $14-an-hour warehouse position to help support her partner Kimmie and their 5-year-old son, Damien.
She’s a street millennial that isn’t talked about as much as her more privileged peers and has little in common with them at first glance. But she and other like her may play pivotal roles in the coming election – leading not just the young adults we’re used to hearing about to polls, but also a wider swath of economically imperiled voters, a new multigenerational demographic that British economist Guy Standing calls “the precariat.”
The name – an academic mashup of “precarious” and “proletariat” – describes an emerging social class born from the global breakdown of traditional work and its social consequences. Its members, in college and out, are bound by an acute and chronic sense of financial insecurity. It crosses boundaries of race, class, gender, immigration status and age because it “merges with a deep sense of unfairness and inequality and injustice that is in society right now,” according to John Russo, a retired labor professor at Youngstown University.
In America, we mostly define it as Bernie Sanders supporters, but Standing says it’s a larger group than that. Even professionals once considered upwardly mobile, like doctors and lawyers, are more often at-will employees, worried that the rug could be pulled out at any moment. “These people are just as insecure as the people ... fighting for $15,” Standing said.
Wilson believes that, too. Her job is to help morph the minimum-wage movement into a larger voting bloc by making alliances with immigration activists and Black Lives Matter, and incorporating child care workers and home health care aides – eventually pulling in those alienated white-collar millennials.
By coalescing these disparate interests into a recognizable demographic – the precariat in action if not name – Fight for $15 (and SEIU, the union behind it) gains political power by promising to deliver them en masse to polls. That’s appealing to Democrats struggling to speak to our pervasive anxiety, but uncertain if it will pay off.
Standing says there’s a growing self-awareness among the precariat that could lead to action – and that’s where millennials like Wilson come in. If the precariat does become a political reality in 2016, it will likely be because of the work of hard-knocks millennials like her who are tough, capable and optimistic – at odds with most everything we typically hear about the generation.
“I don’t care about your feelings,” she says. “Something is going to change.”
Anita Chabria is a freelance writer in Sacramento. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.