It’s easy to throw millennials and their “incoherent” politics under the bus—especially when they believe the government should be doing a better job while suggesting both cutting spending and boosting it in the same poll.
But while these kinds of contradictions have branded millennials as a politically indifferent and disconnected generation, their reputation betrays an emerging and distinct identity of civic activism.
The confusion seems to stem from the fact that millennials—unlike their predecessors—don’t see today’s government as the best venue for performing their civic duty.
“Young people still care about our country,” said Harvard Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe last year. “But we will likely see more volunteerism than voting in 2014.”
While volunteering data for 2014 hasn’t yet been released, if 2013 data is any indication, Volpe will likely be right. In a pattern that’s become par for the course, millennials once again underrepresented at the polls for the midterm elections, with just 10 million voters of a possible 46 million.
But these apparently apathetic millennials are the same group that mustered 14.5 million volunteers in 2013 and helped double the rate of volunteering in the U.S. between 1989 and 2005 among 16-24 year olds.
According to the 2014 Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, 83 percent of millennials said that if Americans volunteered more time and money to community groups and charitable organizations, it would make life better around them. Among those older than 34, just 62 percent said the same thing.
Meanwhile, the poll also showed that 66 percent of millennials believe local business—another community-focused effort—can help them live a good life. Less than half of non-millennials agreed with them.
But as millennials exhibit more faith in community volunteering and entrepreneurship than other Americans, they set historically low marks for trust in government last year, according to a Harvard University’s Institute of Politics survey.
That’s because millennials—who came of age up in a world of Google, Wikipedia and social media—have an unprecedented expectation of accountability. Politicians’ claims are routinely fact-checked. “Because I read it in the paper,” has become an absurd reason to believe something is true. And the news media are no longer the gatekeepers to information.
A greater demand for transparency and responsiveness has supplanted millennials’ trust in government (see Snowden, Edward) and it’s as close to a unifying political philosophy as millennials have offered.
“We’re less interested in big government vs. small government than we are in better government—making our democratic systems more inclusive and more responsive,” wrote the authors of Government By and For Millennials, a 2013 report from the Roosevelt Institute.
They then issued the millennial mea culpa: “On the other hand, despite seeing government as a theoretically important tool, this generation is opting out.”
When transparency becomes a priority, activist causes take precedence over monolithic institutions. According to the Millennial Impact Report, a 2014 report from the philanthropy- and entrepreneurship-focused Case Foundation, millennials choose where to donate their time and money based not on institutional trust—as their parents did—but on their ability to see where they’ll make an impact.
“Millennials like to see where their money is going,” wrote the report’s authors. They “echoed repeatedly […] that they wanted transparency on how the organization was using and maximizing the gift.”
While the notorious opacity of government spending drives most millennials away, it’s not a death knell for democracy so much as a call-to-action for government to re-engage millennials. And across the country, a handful of millennial mayors haven’t given up on government’s ability to adapt to the needs of a new generation.
Svante Myrick, the 27-year-old mayor of Ithaca, New York, is one of them. Since taking office in 2012, he’s made transparency and responsiveness a priority, establishing a Facebook page for the city, engaging daily on Twitter and turning his mayoral parking space into a public park to regularly meet with constituents.
“People aren’t used to having unfettered access to public officials,” Myrick said. “But unfettered access is kind of what my generation is all about.”