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

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.


So will elite Millennials abandon Washington?

Nicco Mele believes so. A Kennedy School professor who oversaw the groundbreaking digital strategy for 2004 Democratic candidate Howard Dean, Mele said it’s already happening -- and it’s a devastating development. “These kids are starting their own things at a rapid rate -- in part because there isn’t much of a job for them in the old institutions,” he told me. “If you’re a super-talented, super-smart 22-year-old and it looks like you need to take an unpaid internship and lick envelopes to get into a field you’re interested in, forget it. Better to start something new.” Mele is an investor in, Morgan’s website.

In a book he published this spring, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, Mele warns that governments, political parties, corporations and other national institutions are crumbling before the power of the individual and the “radical connectivity” of technology. “Should present trends go unchecked,” Mele writes, “it is easy to imagine a nightmare scenario of social breakdown.”

While that may be the extreme scenario, Mele and other experts on the Millennial Generation say they can easily envision a future without a two-party system. The GOP and (less likely) the Democratic Party could die. Government itself, Mele says, may shed its hierarchical 20th-century approach and evolve into a mere “platform” that creates room for groups of citizens to do start-up ad-hoc projects or for small government groups to provide services in a coordinated manner.

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a forward thinker on digital-age governance, says a Millennial government will be peer-to-peer: ideas and actions bubbling up from citizens. “We need to acknowledge that for a whole generation of Americans under the age 30,” Newsom writes in his book, Citizensville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, “their reality is not like the reality of the over-30s grew up with.”

This is what Steele had in mind when the former GOP chair told me to watch the scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony Stark takes a fistful of data about a criminal investigation and throws it onto a 3D screen, where it disaggregates into a collage of microbytes. Using these electronic puzzle pieces, Stark assembles a better picture of who carried out the crime and why. “That scene tells you all you need to know about what Millennials are poised to do to Washington,” Steele told me. “They are going to destroy the old silos, scatter their elements to the wind, and reassemble them in ways that make sense for them and the new century.”

Predicting the future of U.S. politics is risky business. But this much is certain: In a Millennial world, nothing will be sacred. “Millennials will produce radical reconstruction of civil institutions and government,” says Michelle Diggles, a senior policy adviser at the Democratic think-tank Third Way and an expert in demographics and generational politics.

Diggles is the first to admit that, contrary to conventional wisdom, her party does not have a lock on the youth vote -- and thus Democrats are not immune to the withering forces of generational change. For instance, she says, 51 percent of Millennials believe that when government runs something it is usually wasteful and inefficient, up from 31 percent in 2003 and 42 percent in 2009: “Hardly a ringing endorsement for a bigger government providing more services.” There’s more: 86 percent of Millennials support private Social Security accounts and 74 percent would change Medicare so people can buy private insurance. Sixty-three percent believe free trade is a good thing. Only 38 percent of Millennials support affirmative action.

In 2008, President Obama spoke directly and successfully to the Millennial experience. But his inability to overcome polarization and gridlock has cost the president support among young Americans (even if they blame the GOP for Washington dysfunction). Not only did Obama’s share of the youth vote decline from 66 percent to 60 percent, but fewer young people participated (45 percent turnout in 2012 compared to 51 percent in 2008), according to Harvard pollster Della Volpe. The drop was most pronounced in swing states where Obama didn’t target and mobilize his voters.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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