These Millennials Left Me in the Dust (More, Please)

Young Americans flock to civic service and social entrepreneurship while avoiding politics and government. That's a problem.

Just 10 years ago, I was a fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics, writing a book on leadership. A bright band of students helped me research how successful political, business, and religious leaders were adapting to a fast-changing American public buffeted by economic upheaval, technological advances, demographic makeover, and war.

Ever thankful for their free and fantastic labor, my co-authors (Matthew Dowd and Doug Sosnik) and I dutifully recorded each researcher's name in the book's acknowledgements. Where are they now?

—Elise Stefanik is in Congress, the youngest women ever elected to the House or Senate.

—Kelly Ward is a few blocks away: the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

 —Rebecca Brocato is in the White House, serving as director of legislative affairs for the National Security Council.

—Eric Lesser is in the Massachusetts state Senate, a former director of strategic planning for the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He is a consultant on HBO's Veep.

—Mark Beatty is a partner in 270 Strategies and a former strategist for Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns.

—Steve Grove is at Google, heading the News Lab when he's not running a nonprofit that brings kids from his home state of Minnesota to Silicon Valley for a weeklong summer tech camp.

—Anat Maytal is an associate at BakerHostetler law firm. She is president of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association.

You get the point: The hustling Harvard kids left me in the dust. Their careers and social commitment far surpass anything I could have imagined at their age, much less accomplish at my own.

This sampling of the best and brightest stands as an example of how the so-called millennial generation is already reshaping America—already taking over, which is a good thing. They also are outliers: Their generation is generally disconnected from politics and government, which is a horrible thing.

Also at the IOP resides a treasure trove of polling on the political attitudes of millennials, people born between 1980 and 2000. One constant in 15 years of surveys is this dichotomy: Record numbers of young Americans are engaged in community and civic service while turning their backs on the institutions of politics and government.

"One of the first and most important findings we found was that young Americans drew a significant distinction between social activism and political activism," Harvard IOP pollster John Della Volpe said in recent testimony before a GOP-led congressional task force on millennial voters. "Social activism was defined largely as local, micro, effective, and tangible. Political activism in contrast was viewed as distant, macro, bureaucratic, and abstract."

The first millennials, who are now in their early 30s, told pollsters at the turn of the century that the only way to change things for the better was to do it themselves, one good deed at a time, outside of government, and away from politics and politicians. "Despite glimmers of hope from time to time," Della Volpe testified, "I now sit before you 15 years later—after an attack on our homeland, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, a global war on terror, an inspiring presidential campaign of 2008, and a great recession—I say that, sadly, little has changed."

Nearly three-quarters of college students don't trust the federal government to do the right thing, and two-thirds think elected official are motivated by selfish reasons. After flocking to President Obama and the Democratic Party in 2008, millennials drifted away from the party as his administration only reinforced their misgivings about government and politics. Young voters still favor Democrats, Della Volpe testified, but barely.

The chairman of the millennial task force was Stefanik, the former Harvard student who worked on Della Volpe's polling team when she wasn't researching leadership for me. Stefanik hopes her generation becomes a positive force for political disruption.

"In the private sector, we've disrupted entire industries to make sure they're providing the best quality services to customers and the best products," she told me last month. "We haven't done that in Congress yet."

The challenge for Republicans is particularly acute, according to GOP pollster (and former IOP fellow) Kristen Soltis Anderson, who testified for Stefanik just before the publication of her book, The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up).

"I am young and I am a Republican," writes the millennial-aged pollster. "I don't view these things as in any way contradictory." But many voters do. "It's no secret that the GOP has had a hard time winning over the millennial generation—the newest voters in the electorate—and that this has made it increasingly hard for Republicans to win elections."

Like Della Volpe, Anderson argues that neither party has earned the trust of this generation of pragmatic, can-do, consensus-builders—a large and diverse group of Americans who seek altruistic purpose in the products they buy, the places they work, and any candidates they might support.

Shaped by war, a technological revolution, and economic tumult, their attitudes fit neatly alongside the nation's most civic-minded generations: The one that won World War II, the one that elected Abraham Lincoln, and the one that revolted against King George.

Those past great generations used politics to change the world. Millennials, on the other hand, are social entrepreneurs; they use the radical connectivity of the Internet to bypass government and do good things on a relatively small scale.

If, as Bill Clinton declared in 1993, there's not a problem in America that's not being solved somewhere in America, millennials have an app for that.

But that's not enough. To bring their problem-solving to scale, millennials need to trust that they can reinvent and exploit the political system. Soltis believes it's starting to happen.

"In terms of who is running campaigns, you've got a young generation of operatives who are stepping up, and in terms of who is running and voting, that change is already underway," she told me via email. There are more voters under 30 than over 65, she said. Someone who turns 18 in time to vote in next year's presidential election, based on average life expectancy, will continue to vote until the presidential election of 2076.

"That's a lot of votes," she wrote.

It's also a lot of time. Given the dizzying pace of change so far this century, there's reason to hope it's enough time for earthquakes of political reform.

DISCLOSURE: I serve on the Harvard IOP senior advisory committee. The IOP staff researched the careers of the 2005 students.

CORRECTION: Due to typo, the initial story misquoted Soltis on the younger-older voter ratio.