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.

Is there a common generational perspective on the budget that offers a path around the deadlock we're in?

Gabbard: I think there is. Within the generation, there are broad strokes of recognition that one of the major reasons we're in the position we're in today is a large lack of trust and frustration from the taxpayer that government isn't managing the taxpayer dollars well and in ways that are actually serving the needs of our communities. I think that's a commonality that all of us can agree on. Then figuring out, what are the core responsibilities and how do we fund these things? What I've seen is, we can't even have those conversations because people haven't taken the time to establish those relationships.

As more of your generation moves into positions of influence, will there be more of a focus on devolving power?

Gabbard: The entrepreneurial spirit is present not only in business, but that innovation also has to happen in government. I think we have the opportunity to really shift the way things maybe have been done, to where you're not afraid to sit down and collaborate and have a conversation. From a generational perspective, there's a sense of urgency and impatience and not sitting here thinking, "I plan to serve in Congress for the next 40 years, so here's my 40-year plan."

To what degree do you and Representative Gabbard find yourselves on the same path?

Schock: We are together in a disdain for the status quo. We are together in our lack of appreciation for processes instead of outcomes, and we are together that while we may have strong principled views that vary, that we also believe we grew up in a society where you don't get everything you want. Some call that compromise; some call that negotiation. I like to call that reality. I like to think that people of all ages—but particularly people in Congress in their 20s and 30s—tend to have that reality more so than our peers. One party controls the House, one party controls the Senate, and within their respective chambers they control the process. But at the end of the day, if you're not accomplishing anything out of it, what are you controlling?

Let me ask you about the sociology of the House. Are millennials wired differently? Are you feared by your elders in both parties when you're on Instagram, when you're on Twitter?

Schock: Obviously, I didn't join this body to become one of the—as I call them—old crusties. At the same time, I cannot be successful as an island. So at the end of the day, your challenge is to remain differentiated, keep your passion, but at the same time earn the respect and eventual support of your colleagues on the issues you care about. So if you go surfing and you post a photo that perhaps an 80-year-old wouldn't, they might chuckle. But so long as you show them respect and you're serious on the issues and can debate on policy, then I've found it can work, that you can engage people outside of this world of Washington that you would otherwise not reach, while also maintaining a sense of credibility on the campus.

What could be some negatives of the rise of millennials?

Schock: We didn't have enough kids. The problems with Medicare and Social Security would be great if we all had six kids. The problem is that our parents didn't have enough children. Based on birth rates, we aren't going to have enough children. And the good news is that we're living longer than our parents and our grandparents. So the way the systems are structured right now we're headed toward a pretty steep cliff.

And while I just went on praising the transparency and the instantaneous communication, I also think candidly that does force the institution to play more to the cameras than perhaps it had prior to the instantaneous and constant coverage. 

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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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