It is a generational tradition to pin labels on the young. As outlined in The Atlantic in the recent article The Try-Hard Generation, literature from as far back as ancient Greece is rife with commentary decrying the “moral decay” of the youth of the era. Today’s youths, typically called Millennials – defined as those who were born between 1980 and 2000 – have been assigned any number of character flaws by our elders: lazy, selfish, narcissistic, (recall the Time Magazine cover labelling us the “Me Me Me Generation”) and apathetic are among the most prominent. I find fault with all the above labels, but it is the last one – for today, at least – to which I’ll devote my attention.
First of all, and just so we’re clear, it is verifiably false that Millennials are apathetic. According to a 2014 Nielsen report on Millennials’ attitude towards volunteering, 75 percent donated money to a charity and 57 percent volunteered, the latter of which was the highest percentage among any generation. Another study showed that of those polled who donated to a non-profit, more than half gave more than $100. The Nielsen study also showed that the issues about which we Millennials care the most are education, poverty, and the environment. These findings hardly reflect the behavior of people who don’t know or don’t care about the world around them.
With all that said, there is one very specific and highly visible public arena which my generation has largely eschewed. Politics is the elephant in the room, the thing to which pundits point when decrying the lack of engagement of the younger generation. And though I’ll probably have to take a shower after writing this phrase, I think the pundits make a good point.
There is a perception among Millennials that the political system is so broken that it is not worth the effort to engage with it. In Running from Office, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox’s recent book exploring the political ambitions of Millennials, the two authors conduct a study in which they listed 20 professions and asked the participants to rank them according to desire. “Mayor of a small town” was 17th, just barely above “Member of Congress.” Whereas forty years ago most young believed that the government generally did the right thing, a majority of Millennials – about 60 percent – have negative views of government and politics. Politicians, in other words, are the villains (theme alert!)
I completely understand the lack of interest or trust in politics. Politics sucks. It is messy and self-serving and beholden to the interests of the monied at the expense, and to the detriment, of everyone else. There are legitimate concerns that the fundamental structure of our elections, particularly campaign finance, is flawed and needs changing. I understand how easy it is to become jaded about the government.
Here is what I do not understand. We have already established that Millennials care about issues and society and generally making the world a better place. But here’s the thing: nothing big or real or lasting can be accomplished without the support of at least some of those in government.
Do you want a more progressive tax code or a carbon emissions cap on businesses or increased education spending or better care for the homeless? All that takes legislation. It takes direct action from elected representatives. Non-profits and advocacy organizations can only do so much. At a certain point, the government will have to be involved.
So work to elect a member who will fight for you and your issues. Better yet, run yourself. It doesn’t need be be federal. Run for city council, or school board member, or any of the other thousands of options for elected office in this country. You may find it to our liking.
Another study conducted by Lawless and Fox reveals that only one out nine Millennials would seriously consider running for office. That is a shame. Unlike the grave, intellectuals penning jeremiads lamenting the devolution of society, I am a (admittedly biased) believer in Millennials. We are hard working, tolerant, open-minded, justice-oriented, and driven towards building a better world, and the more of those qualities we have in office, the better.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.