Whether it is entertainment, consumer goods, or almost anything else that can be purchased, viewed, or clicked on, millennials are the most coveted demographic. There are about 80 million Americans between the ages of 18-34 and next year they are expected to spend $2.45 trillion.
But when it comes to politics and national policy, they have relatively little clout because most of them don’t reliably vote and aren’t major political contributors. These young adults have voluntarily checked out of a political system they consider corrupt and dysfunctional.
Last month, a Gallup poll showed Barack Obama’s standing among white millennials down to 34 percent, the lowest rating of his presidency with this group, which reflects not only the disaffection young Americans have with the president but also with both parties and politics in general.
Despite being the country’s largest adult demographic, the millennial participation rate in the November midterm elections was the worst of any age group. Only about 21 percent of millennials cast a ballot and exit polls showed that voters 30 and younger represented only 13 percent of the electorate. However, in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections they were the largest bloc of voters.
The unevenness of millennial political participation is driven in part by apathy and by the belief that politics is not the way to solve problems. This feeling has been exacerbated by the political dysfunction in Washington and by their disappointment that Obama has not delivered on his promise to change the political system.
A majority of the millennials who are registered to vote are independents, and only 31 percent say they believe there is much difference between Republicans and Democrats, according to a Pew Research Center survey.
A recent study by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 80 percent of young adults do not consider themselves to be politically engaged and only 18 percent said that they believe the way to address important issues is through the political system.
So how can millennials be mobilized?
Two groups working on the question are the Millennial Action Project and the Nexus Youth Summit, which partnered recently for a Capitol Hill summit that featured more than half-a-dozen members of Congress who addressed millennial philanthropists and political leaders.
The gathering featured panels on topics like impact investing, gun safety, women in philanthropy, education reform, and climate change. It focused on the possibility of finding common ground and how the two parties can work together in Congress as well as how millennials can use philanthropy to promote social change.
The Millennial Action Project (MAP) seeks to engage young people in politics and give them more of a voice in governing. It was behind the organization of the bipartisan Congressional Future Caucus, headed by Hawaii Democrat Tulsi Gabbard and Illinois Republican Aaron Schock, both 33 years old. The caucus is for lawmakers younger than 40—currently there are 40 representatives under 40 years old in the U.S. House but another 20 were elected in November.
No sitting senator is under 40, but Republicans Tom Cotton of Arkansas, 37, and Cory Gardner of Colorado, 40, both elected in November, will change that next year.
Republican Elise Stefanik, 30, of upstate New York, just became the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. But Steven Olikara, the Millennial Action Project’s founder, laments that there is still not a single member of Congress under the age of 30.
“This new generation of leaders can make cooperation sexy,” Olikara told me.
That was certainly the vibe at the summit, which even inspired Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican who pushed for the 2013 government shutdown, to talk about the need for bipartisanship and citizen engagement even as he slammed the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration’s action on immigration.
“This town is corrupt,” Cruz declared. “The American people need to rise up and hold their elected officials accountable.”
Many of those in attendance were visibly unimpressed by Cruz and some of his comments were met with derisive laughter, but he was given credit for showing up.
A big part of the draw for Cruz may have been the wealthy millennials in attendance, who are participants in the Nexus Youth Summit. Nexus’ membership includes “hundreds of the world’s most philanthropic families,” according to Jonah Wittkamper, its co-founder and director.
The group, which includes members of the Rockefeller, Pritzker, and Marriott families, was hosted at the White House this spring.
In the not too distant future, these young people will control billions of dollars. Over the next several decades an estimated $30 trillion will transfer through inheritance to millennials and Wittkamper is trying to encourage them to think strategically about philanthropy now.
Nexus is not only an American but a worldwide organization and Wittkamper says the group’s showcase event is its annual United Nations summit. He likes to bring diverse people together and attempt to build bridges, for example, between “members of Israel’s wealthiest families and Saudi princes.”
Among millennials, though, it is not just the super-wealthy who believe in charitable giving— 87 percent of those under age 35 gave a financial gift to nonprofits last year.
Many millennials who don’t trust the political system—even the wealthiest—are working outside it to effect change. But Olikara cautioned those attending the congressional summit they can’t just take the attitude that politics is dirty and not worth their trouble.
In the Harvard study, 33 percent of millennials said they believe members of Congress represent themselves more than anyone else; 27 percent said campaign donors; 25 percent said their party; and only 10 percent said members of Congress prioritize the interests of their constituents.
But on issues ranging from climate change to the national debt, education and entitlement reform, Olikara says millennials will be disproportionately burdened in the future by congressional inaction now—so they had better get involved.
“If you care about policy, you have to care about politics. If you want to make a difference on a big scale, you’ve got to get involved in politics and government.”
Legend says bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he reportedly answered “because that’s where the money is.”
It’s the same thing for the political system—it’s where the big money and power is centered. Why else would $4 billion have been spent on the midterm election?
Millennials have the numbers and if they would organize to make their voices heard, they could force significant political changes.