It takes a spectacular amount of arrogance to claim that a single, narrow set of personal characteristics are intrinsic to an entire generation. Interests, however, are a different story. Thanks to the forces of history, the idea that those born between 1980 and 2000 — us much-maligned Millennials — have a specific set of interests that distinguish us from previous generations has more than a grain of truth to it. Our greatest and most common challenges — a weak job market, student loan debt and climate change come to mind — imply that we are united in our need for solutions to them. After all, who would gain more from those than us?
Private entrepreneurship, public advocacy and representative government are all essential avenues through which we can pursue these solutions. These are not all equally easy, however, and the payoffs from each differ greatly in their quantity and scope. The entrepreneurial innovations and risks taken to develop, produce and sell new technologies can lead to massive payoffs for the individuals involved and are an integral part of the American economy. Public advocacy — including social media campaigns, door-to-door canvassing and letters to the editor — can move once-obscure issues squarely into the public spotlight and generate ideas for their resolution. And campaigning for candidates, voting in elections and communicating with representatives from the local to national level — the core actions of representative government — has the greatest potential for change in all three. When marshaled, the combined power that Congress, the presidency and state and local governments can bring to bear on these issues through legislation, executive orders, law enforcement, regulation and policy implementation is unrivaled, and its scope unmatched. My generation’s best hope for solving the challenges it faces are therefore those who it elects.
Bear with me here — this isn’t a study on youthful optimism and reality-oblivious idealism. I’m fully aware of the prevailing opinion in this country about our leaders — as The Onion recently noted in its typical manner, “the embarrassed U.S. populace … confided to reporters that for a moment there they had found themselves actively seeking meaningful action from their elected representatives.” I feel those concerns. When according to a poll by Real Clear Politics only about 14 percent of the American people believe Congress is doing its job well, it truly is foolish to expect them to think their representatives are addressing the issues important to them. But while The Onion is a quality publication with a solid argument here, it passed over another key point regarding our representatives: in order for them to represent your interests as a constituency, you have to present yourself as such.
Our generation isn’t very good at that. For starters, only the brightest (and luckiest) of us students and young professionals are independently wealthy, can raise large sums of money or are close to the heads of those organizations that wield so much power in the public sphere. You don’t see corporate lobbies, super-PACs or even the Republican and Democratic Parties prioritizing issues for young people, and you certainly don’t see any young people at their respective helms. The power and money they have therefore isn’t used to advocate for our generation’s interests. Even more disappointing in light of this fact is how young Americans have had the lowest voter turnout rate of any segment of the population in recent years — in 2010, only 19.6 percent of the 18 to 24 year old population turned out to vote. In short, our generation is reluctant to use the ballot box to advocate for its interests even as the next powerful avenue to effecting change through representative government — spending money and working through existing institutions that are powerful in the public sphere — is many times more difficult to utilize.
How this can change is an open and immensely complicated question that I cannot myself answer. I can suggest several reasons for Millennials’ dismal participation in electoral politics from my personal experience: severe and understandable disillusionment in the political system, a lack of awareness regarding how to effectively lobby elected representatives to act on a certain issue (not to mention not knowing who those representatives are in the first place), never getting around to voting on Election Day and, in some cases, pure carelessness. One thing is clear, though: whether representatives will represent and prioritize the Millennials’ collective interests depends not on overcoming some generational character trait, but on each individual making a commitment to those interests.
Eric Ferguson can be reached at email@example.com.