The Outsiders: How Can Millennials Change Washington If They Hate It?

Young people are eager to serve and to change the world. They just have no faith that public service or elected office are the way to get it done.
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Students at Langley High School in Langley, Virginia (All photos Richard A. Bloom)

Forget what you’ve read about the “Me, Me, Me Generation.” Here are four things you probably don’t know about the 95 million Americans born between 1982 and 2003:

  1. Millennials, in general, are fiercely committed to community service.
  2. They don’t see politics or government as a way to improve their communities, their country, or the world.
  3. So the best and brightest are rejecting public service as a career path. Just as Baby Boomers are retiring from government and politics, Washington faces a rising-generation “brain drain.”
  4. The only way Millennials might engage Washington is if they first radically change it.

The first three conclusions are rooted in hard data I’ll share below. For a least a decade, experts have struggled to understand why civic-minded Millennials are rejecting public service and politics. Beyond the why, I wanted to understand what it means: What happens to U.S. politics over the next two or three decades if the best and bright of the next generation abandon Washington? So I talked to them -- at elite public high schools in suburban Washington and Boston, at Harvard University’s Kennedy School for Government, and on Capitol Hill. In all, I conducted more than 80 interviews with Millennials as well as pollsters, demographers, and generational experts. They brought me to my fourth conclusion: What Millennials have in store for the political system is revolutionary. Maybe worse.

“They’ve been told all their lives to wait in line,” former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele says. “But they’re of a mind to say, ‘OK, while I’m waiting in line I’ll blow your stuff up.”

You’ve heard the knocks against Millennials. They’re narcissistic, coddled, and lazy, not to mention spoiled. But there’s more to their story. The largest and most diverse generation in U.S. history is goal-orientated, respects authority and follows rules. Millennials are less ideological than their Baby Boom parents (more on that later) and far more tolerant. In addition to famously supporting gay rights, polls show they are less prone to cast negative moral judgments on interracial marriages, single women raising children, unmarried couples living together and mothers of young children working outside the home. While their parents and grandparents preferred to work alone, young Americans are team-oriented and seek collaboration. Wired to the world, they are more likely than past generations to see the globe’s problems as their own. Millennials are eager to serve the greater community through technologies, paradoxically, that empower the individual.

Speaking of technology, Millennials witnessed, embraced, and in some cases instigated massive disruptions of the music, television, movie, media, and retail industries.  The most supervised and entitled generation in human history, they have no patience for inefficiency, stodgy institutions or the status quo. Consider what they could do to politics and government.

***

The good news is they want to serve.

“The Millennials have arrived, and they could rescue the civic health of our nation after decades of decline,” says John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, a national-service think tank. One of the nation’s foremost authorities on civic engagement, Bridgeland believes Millennials will be the next Greatest Generation, because, like the generation anointed by Tom Brokaw, they are products of an era of economic crisis and war, and are committed to community service.

The path to service usually goes like this: A Millennial’s parents fret that their precocious daughter can’t compete in a global economy without admission to a prestigious university. Volunteerism looks good on college applications, so twice a week they drive her to the local food pantry, where, starting in elementary school, she stocks shelves. When she gets to high school, community service is a requirement, because the superintendent’s appraisals are tied to college-admission rates.

Over time, a funny thing happens: The child actually likes community service. Data shows Millennials continue to volunteer into adulthood. Their reasons range from the practical (“It’s a great way to catch up with friends and help people,” a Concord, Massachusetts, high-school student told me) to the spiritual (“It just makes me feel better about myself,” said a 23-year-old politico at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.).

The National Conference on Citizenship reported in 2009 that Millennials “lead the way in volunteering” with a 43 percent service rate, compared to only 35 percent for Baby Boomers. According to research conducted for Harvard’s Institute of Politics, more than one-third of Americans ages 18-29 report that they volunteered for community service in the last year. Among college students, the volunteerism rate is a remarkable 53 percent, of which 41 percent say they serve at least a few times a month. The IOP has found similar levels of service since the project began in 2000.

Millennials also have an outsized sense of purpose. “Young Americans are more concerned with the importance of their work than the salary attached to it,” according to a study by the Government Business Council, the research arm of The Atlantic’s sister publication Government Executive. “In the 2011 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Student Survey, college students revealed that the ability to improve the community ranks almost as highly as a strong starting salary when searching for their first job.”

***

But how do they hope to serve? Matt Kissling teaches government at Langley High School, an elite public school in suburban Washington that caters to the sons and daughters of U.S. congressmen, ambassadors, and Cabinet members. If his students aren’t the best and brightest, they’re close enough. So I asked them: “How many of you volunteer in your community?”

Every student raised a hand.

“I teach autistic kids to ride horses,” Morgan Wallace said.

“Me, too,” said Ashley Morabito. They’re all chirping now:

“I work at a food pantry.”

“ … at my church.”

“Tutor reading …”

“… and teach English.”

 “But how many of you think traditional public service is the best way to help your community and country?” I asked. “In other words, how many of you will make a career in politics or government?”

Not a hand went up. No chirping. Nothing -- the only noise in the abruptly silent room was the electronic hum of a fluorescent light. Finally, Shayan Ghahramani, a student, whispered, “Is this a joke?”

It wasn’t.  But it was telling. The Harvard IOP study, “Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service,” published on April 30, suggests  Millennials are increasingly negative and cynical about the political process.

  • Nearly three in five young Americans agree that elected officials seem motivated by “selfish reasons,” an increase of 5 points since 2010.
  • Fifty-six percent agree that “elected officials don’t have the same priorities that I have,” a 5-point increase.
  • Nearly half agree that “politics has become too partisan,” up 2 points.
  • Nearly one-third agree that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results,” up 5 points.

More to the point, 47 percent of young Americans agree that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges out country is facing.” Only 16 percent disagree.

How deep is the disengagement? I spent two days at Harvard, and couldn’t find a single student whose career goal is Washington or elective office. One wouldn’t expect to hear this at the Kennedy School of Government. “Government and politics,” said graduate student Sara Estill, “holds little or no attraction for us.”

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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