What Is It Like to Be a Millennial in Congress?

The generation dealing the most with the changing nature of the United States is starting to shape politics.
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Chet Susslin/National Journal

The experience of the Millennial generation as it moves into adulthood raises a new permutation of an old question: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

The unstoppable force is the massive wave of Millennials—best defined as the more than 90 million people born between 1981 and 2002—now entering adulthood. The immovable object is the most stubborn economic slowdown since the Great Depression.

This generation is "unprecedented. The rules don't apply," Richard Cooper, vice president for emerging issues and research at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued at a National Journal/Atlantic town hall about Millennials in Washington last month. "The silos that have divided [previous] generations—they're interested in going right through those. Gender, race, demographics, this is a generation that doesn't see those barriers."

But the challenges this generation faces are equally daunting.

In March, 14.5 percent of people under 25 were unemployed. That's more than twice the unemployment rate for all workers, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute. The unemployment picture for the young has improved since its April 2010 nadir, but young workers are still facing a grim job market. Before the recent recession, the unemployment rate for those under 25 last exceeded 14.5 percent in 1992.

In 2012, 36 percent of the nation's young adults, ages 18 to 31, were living in their parents' homes—the highest share in more than 40 years, according to the Pew Research Center. And compared with previous generations, adult Millennials carry record levels of student-loan debt. About two-thirds of recent bachelor's-degree recipients have such debt, with the total burden averaging $27,000. Twenty years ago, only about half of new graduates carried student debt.

These economic strains help explain why adult Millennials are also behind previous generations in other respects, as another recent Pew report found. In 2013, only 26 percent of Millennials ages 18 to 32 were married. At the same ages, 36 percent of Generation X, 48 percent of baby boomers, and 65 percent of the earlier Silent Generation had all tied the knot.

Despite coming of age in historically turbulent economic conditions, many young adults are moving ahead—and beginning to reshape the economy, the civic sector, and the political sphere as they do. Millennials are at the beginning of a demographic shift transforming America: More than two-fifths of them are nonwhite. They are also the best-educated generation ever. In 2012, 90 percent of young adults held a high school diploma, a record high. That year, for the first time, a third of young people held at least a four year-college degree.

And they are uniquely wired. "While every generation writes their page in history, this generation's page is entirely digital," Cooper said.

Millennials aren't using their digital savvy just to share vacation snaps. The advances in communications technology are making it easier for young people to start their own businesses or nonprofit organizations. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Millennials launched about 160,000 start-ups each month in 2011.

Despite their economic challenges, Millennials remain hopeful about the future and confident in their abilities. Seventy percent say they're optimistic about their "economic prospects for the next few years," according to a recent online poll of young adults conducted by Democratic pollster Paul Harstad.

Millennials are shaping the political landscape, too. Their votes were instrumental in President Obama's 2008 and 2012 victories. In 2016, they are projected to represent 30 percent of the adult population, up from 17 percent in 2008. To assess the generation's effect on politics, Representatives Tulsi Gabbard, Democrat of Hawaii, and Aaron Schock, Republican of Illinois, both 33, recently spoke with Ronald Brownstein and Steve Clemons, editor of AtlanticLIVE, at last month's Millennial town hall in Washington. Gabbard and Schock cochair the Congressional Future Caucus, founded in cooperation with the nonpartisan Millennial Action Project. Edited excerpts follow.

You are one of the first Millennials in Congress. Looking at what you have seen so far, do you think there is any common perspective on issues among millennials that offers a way out of the persistent partisan divide?

Gabbard: Absolutely, yes. This is a story that unfortunately doesn't make the headlines, but there is a strong and growing undercurrent that is beginning in the halls of Congress. Aaron and I became friends because we started talking and we started to understand that we have the same frustrations, that we are both results-driven individuals, and wherever we may fall on different issues, we respect each other and recognize that in order to reach that common objective, we have to work together. And that's where there is hope for some change in the gridlock that we see.

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Stephanie Czekalinski

Stephanie Czekalinski is a staff reporter at National Journal.

Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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