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

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.”

John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard’s IOP, said there was a moment between the reelection campaigns of George W. Bush and Barack Obama when the case could have been made to Millennials that government is transcendent. “But instead, they came of age in a period of polarization and gridlock,” said Della Volpe, who is otherwise sympathetic to Obama. “The president they supported could not overcome it.”

Kennedy School grad student Chike Aguh told me: “Politics just doesn’t seem relative to a lot of us and our world. Since the Great Society, tell me one big thing that has come out of Washington. Results are important to us, and sadly, politics isn’t a place for results.”


After World War II, millions of the young Americans who would be known as the Greatest Generation found work in swelling government bureaucracies. Many entered elective office. Millennials, however, are much less likely to exercise their sense of civic purpose through public service, and that’s bad news for good governance.

As Baby Boomers approach retirement, the federal government will need to hire more than 200,000 highly skilled workers for a range of critical jobs. A successful transition depends on the interest of the 95 million Millennials -- a pool larger than the Boomers by nearly 20 million people. The Government Business Council recently reported that while Millennials make strong candidates for public service, fewer of them are pursuing government jobs than in past years. In short, they are opting out of government.

College students increasingly prefer the private sector, graduate school, or non-profit work, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s analysis of the 2011 National Association for Colleges and Employers Student Survey. In 2008, 8.4 percent of students planned to work for local, state, and federal governments after graduation. That number reached an all-time high of 10.2 percent during the 2009 recession, before dropping to 7.4 percent in 2010.

Now, just 6 percent of college students plan to work for public sector institutions, and only 2.3 percent want to work at the federal level.

And that’s just the bureaucrats. When top-shelf talent abhors politics, it stands to reason that the pool of political candidates gets shallower. “I want to change the world,” said grad student Brian Chialinsky at the Kennedy School.  “I can’t do that in elective office.”

In their landmark books on Millennials, the sociologists Morley Winograd and Michael Hais compare young Americans today to other great “civic generations” that cycle through U.S. history every eight decades, starting with the Founding Fathers and including the generation that elected Abraham Lincoln and of course the Greatest Generation that won World War II. Raised in troubled times, “as adults, they focus on resolving social challenges and building institutions,” Winograd and Hais write in their recent Millennial Momentum. The authors believe Millennials have the makings to be the next great generation.

The trouble is that Millennials believe traditional politics and government (especially Washington) are the worst avenues to great things. They are more likely to be social entrepreneurs, working outside government to create innovative and measurably successful solutions to the nation’s problems, even if only on a relatively small scale. One is Matt Morgan, a Kennedy School student, who launched a website that helps readers respond to articles with political action. “There are so many problems Washington can’t fix that we can,” he says. Another is his classmate Sarah Estill, who wants to provide police departments with technology to fighting crime. “For my generation there are more ways we can effect change than in the past -- more tools in the toolbox,” she said. “Why not use all of them?” A generation ago, government had a monopoly on public service. To Millennials, the world is filled with injustice and need, but government isn’t the solution. They have apps for that.


Presented by

Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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