The oldest members of the millennial generation are turning 35 this year, making them eligible for the highest seat in the land. While we may not hear Hail to the Chief as the intro for a millennial president this election cycle, 2016 is the last presidential contest in which America’s largest generation will be forced into the spectator-only role.
The Pew Research Center defines millennials as people born in 1981 and after. This is the first generation to come of age in the new millennium. The center describes this generation as “linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry and optimistic about the future.”
Millennials’ engagement with political structures differs wildly from their predecessors’.
“Millennials are dissatisfied with politics,” said Nik Sushka, 32, a former president of the Montgomery County Young Democrats. “Many millennials don’t identify with the political structures of the past, and it’s difficult to get millennials excited about serving in political office.”
Sushka has seen both sides of the coin when it comes to politically engaged — or in some cases disengaged — millennials. Her organization has successfully helped several millennial politicians with campaigns for public office, including Maryland state Dels. William Smith (D-District 20) and Marc Korman (D-District 16), who is Jewish.
However, getting millennials out to vote is still a problem facing candidates at all levels.
Although millennials are less interested in the polls, they are not disengaged from the issues. Sushka said millennials are dissatisfied with policies that would help to address issues such as sexism, racism and immigration reform. This feeling cuts across party lines.
“I think millennials, by and large, definitely respond more strongly to the single-issue advocacy angle,” Brent Tracy, chairman of the Modern Republicans of Howard County, said in an email. “Our generation responds more to what is being said, rather than to who is saying it.”
Tracy, 28, said this feeling comes down to the individual. In his early 20s, he felt more passionate about the issues than the policy; however, he now takes more interest in creating “practical policies,” because he thinks “it is important to note that we can’t fix issues without good policies.”
Millennials, Tracy said, are more interested in tackling political issues through organizations, rather than policies, for two reasons.
First, the generational wall is becoming more difficult to break through due to people living longer and holding office longer.
Second, “They don’t trust politicians.”
“People are more and more cynical about politics — and Washington in particular,” said Matt Dallek, assistant professor of political management at The George Washington University. “I don’t see millennials moving into political space in the traditional offices, [but] more so through advocacy, given the anger and animosity towards elected officials alike and the relative suspicions of each party.”
Korman and Smith, who are from Bethesda and Silver Spring respectively, are among the few millennials to buck that trend. With assistance from the Young Democrats, Korman, 34, and Smith, 33, were elected to the General Assembly in 2014.
What sets older liberals apart from their younger counterparts, said Korman, is how baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) and the Greatest Generation (born before 1928), have developed their positions.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (a baby boomer) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt., and of the Silent Generation) are both seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
“[Millennials have] always had these positions,” said Korman, referring to issues like marriage equality and marijuana legalization. “Clinton and Sanders have had an evolution over time because they have been around longer.”
Korman said that millennials are able to tap into change easily, and change is an idea that voters can get behind. This change is possible for politicians like Clinton and Sanders, but it doesn’t come as easily.
Though millennials don’t have the political cohesion of the baby boomers and the Greatest Generation, they have concrete positions on certain social and foreign policy issues, said Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at the school of government, policy and international affairs at George Mason University.
“On gay rights, they have made up their minds,” said Mayer. “They are against foreign wars. This is a generation shaped by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Unlike their parents’ generation, which saw the first Gulf War as a political success, the foreign conflicts millennials have been exposed to means they’re “not going to vote for the neo-conservative America as policeman of the world,” Mayer predicted.
Conservativism among millennials, said Mayer, will be more libertarian in its identity, in part because millennials are less religious. A 2014 Pew Research Survey concluded that only 27 percent of millennials attend a religious service on a weekly basis, compared to 38 percent of baby boomers and 51 percent of the silent and greatest generations.
Chrysovalantis Kefalas, 36, who is openly gay, epitomizes the ideals of young members in the Republican Party who are less conservative on social issues. Kefalas, who is seeking to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), characterized this not as a potential shift within his party, but as a rapid re-embracing of Republican core values of “free enterprise, individual rights [and] equal opportunity.”
“One of the things I think millennials more than any other generation seem to understand and appreciate is an unwillingness to wait, unwillingness [to wait] for justice to occur,” Kefalas said.
“[Millennials] want to see a lot of social change. They want more involvement not just with brand change, but with voters that aren’t reached right now,” like young voters and minority voters, said Melanie Harris, 29, chair of the Baltimore Area Young Republicans Club and a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
Jimmy Williams, treasurer of the Modern Republicans, said he thinks prioritizing social issues is a key difference between older and younger Republicans.
“A major difference between millennial Republicans and older Republicans is that we tend to prioritize [issues like] the economy/jobs, national security and education,” Williams said in an email. “while older Republicans still tend to put social issues at the top of their lists of important issues.”
Regardless of their differing views on social issues, Harris said she believes young activists in Baltimore, and Maryland in general, are united in their discontent with the political status quo.
“Some [millennials] have come to view our current political climate as status quo regardless of which of the two major parties is in charge,” Williams said. “As a result, [millennials] look to membership in advocacy organizations as a way to effect real change.”
Discontent with the status quo is one of the reasons why Kefalas, who served as Maryland’s youngest deputy legal counsel during Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration, is running.
He joked that his greatest age-related concern is that he looks 20 years old — but in a serious vein, said he believes that voters care more about his experience than his age. He argued that millennials have already begun to influence politics from the inside out.
“Things are getting done and it’s not necessarily the senators and representatives who are getting things done; it’s the young staffers who are pushing for results,” he said.
On the state level, Kefalas said he counts criminal justice reform as an issue he successfully pushed from within the Ehrlich administration. Ehrlich initiated a strategy that provided nonviolent offenders substance abuse treatment and implemented a clemency program in an effort to reintegrate them in society — as productive members of communities.
What will really pitch young against old is not the speed of reform, but money.
“I think one of the key sleeper issues in American politics is pensions,” said Mayer. “Pension politics directly pitches the young against the old. If we come to a pensions crisis that may be the moment millennials get engaged.”
Mayer predicted several states are only a few years away from pension crises.
Student loan debt is another financial issue that has exposed deep generational divides and resentment.
“I think that this generation of Democrats and millennials is on a different fiscal path than previous [generations] for a number of reasons. First is student loan debt,” said Smith.
Smith, the delegate, estimated that his generation has $1.2 trillion of student loan debt. In Maryland, students attending public universities have approximately $25,000 in student debt after earning an undergraduate degree.
“[The amount] of debt that millennials have from the start changes our trajectory,” said Smith. “If you ask average millennials, [this is the] first generation [that believes] our outlook is not better than our parents’.”
Though Sanders has focused on economic disparity on the campaign trail, attracting a wide millennial following in the process, young voters are largely ignored by mainstream political operatives. Brian Zuzenak, former deputy director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, spelled out the reason why to one of Mayer’s classes.
“It’s really expensive to talk to your generation, and when we try, it’s not worth the money because you don’t vote,” Zuzenak said during his lecture, according to Mayer. Although President Barack Obama’s campaign received praise in 2008 and 2012 for its use of social media to bring out younger voters, Mayer said he doesn’t think the millennial turnout was as large as reported.
“I think most campaign operatives would rather improve one or two points among baby boomers than five points among millennials,” said Mayer.
That does not mean millennials will be ignored forever.
“This generation is up for grabs, and I think Republicans and Democrats have yet to figure them out,” said Mayer. “Whichever party figures out how to get this short-attention-span generation to pay attention is going to win.”
(To prove a point, Mayer assigned his class with designing a political advertisement for their peers. The winner: A 12-second Vine video.)
“Everyone has a smartphone, everyone’s on social media all day,” agreed Harris, who re-chartered the Baltimore Young Republicans in July.
“There’s a blissful ignorance of decades past. The radio’s off, the TV’s off; you might not know what’s going on outside your door. With this computer in your pocket [it changes the dynamics].”
“I think the way [the party communicates], that’s a part of change there, the use of social media to engage people instead of old-fashioned methods,” said Korman.
And in an era where a single Facebook post can mean getting a pink slip, social media may also become the downfall of some would-be millennial politicians.
Jonathan Sachs, who graduated from the University of Maryland, was president of the student body and UMD’s College Democrats, has interned on Capitol Hill for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). He previously served as a campus mobilization director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“[The millennials’] biggest liability is also a positive. The positive is how people can connect with each other seamlessly,” through websites like Facebook and Twitter, said Sachs.
“[But] it’ll be interesting when people who were on Facebook for so long start running for office. Everyone has things [on Facebook when] they weren’t at their proudest moment or were voicing an opinion on a controversial topic they don’t still believe.”
Ultimately, millennials believe that — in the words of Korman — “candidates shouldn’t run because they’re young or because they’re old. If there is a well-qualified 35 year-old who can make a case to run for president, their case shouldn’t be [dismissed].”
“The generation that is in power now has been in power for a long time. No one in the Millennial Generation will be elected president on their 35th birthday,” said Sachs. “But the question is how do [politicians] in the next generation lead people in [both generations] to solve some of these big issues we’re facing as a country.”