Millennials Aren't Apathetic

By Dane Sherrets on June 26, 2015

Between September and December, 2014, you probably heard a lot about Millennials. Prior to the election, the conversations and articles likely focused on "Will they vote?" Afterwards it shifted to, "Why didn't they vote?"

The apathetic voting habits of young Americans is a constant fixation during each election cycle. The challenges facing this generation are generally accepted across age groups, with majorities of Gen X, Boomers, and Silents saying young adults face more economic challenges today than they themselves faced when they were starting out. The apathetic brand is a convenient way to explain why more Millennials don't engage with the system: they don't care.

Apathy is not the mass character flaw of an entire generation. It is a brand allowing the economic challenges Millennials face to be recast as problems of our own making, while shifting attention away from the root cause of our low participation.

Millennials Face A Real Economic Dilemma

Young Americans are most closely tied to student loan debt. It is easy to attribute their massive student loan debt as a product of entitlement, another description Millennials are frequently branded with. This assumes that Millennials have the same choices as previous generations, and masks an economic dilemma unprecedented in recent history.

In 1970, the median yearly income of a male high school graduate 25 years or older was equivalent to $51,691 today. In 2010, the same man would have an income of $30,250 ($32,989 in 2015). In 1970 not going to college was vastly more palatable than it is in 2015. Millennials who hope to improve their economic situation don't have a choice at all.

This lack of choice forces young Americans to shoulder the radically increasing cost of an education. In 1970, the average cost of one year at a four-year public college or university was equivalent to $8,127 today. In 2010, that same school would cost on average $15,918 ($17,359 in 2015), more than doubling the price since 1970. The cost of a private four-year institution has done the same.

While young Americans are being forced to shoulder more and more debt, they are finding that a college education is worth far less than it was for their parents. In 1970, a male college graduate 25 years or older had an average annual income equivalent to $74,430 today. By 2013, that figure had declined to $58,170 ($59,380 in 2015).

Labeling Millennials as apathetic allows us to say that their problems could be fixed, if only they voted. The reality is that Millennials have little reason to believe their vote will do anything.

Government Has Failed Young Americans

For many Millennials, the first political event they engaged in was the 2000 Presidential election, in which the candidate with the highest popular vote lost. What followed was over a decade of war and growing partisanship. In 2008 Millennials flocked to Barack Obama's presidential campaign, believing in the power to change America. Instead, they received a harsh lesson is bitter partisanship and Washington gridlock.

The harsh realities of the new century and the scale of the challenges they face have left young Americans deeply cynical. A Harvard University Institute of Politics survey found that faith in institutions has declined among young Americans over the past several years. In 2013, just 18% of voters under 30 trusted that Congress will do the right thing.

"The hyperpartisanship and gridlock that has befallen Washington, D.C., is having a traumatic effect not just on our nation’s status at home and abroad, but on the political health of tens of millions of once (and hopefully future) idealistic young people,” wrote John Della Volpe, the Harvard institute’s polling director, in the study’s conclusion. -- The New York Times

Continual campaign promises to address student debt have been left unfulfilled victims of the hyper-partisanship and gridlock of Washington, and young Americans have been conditioned to see campaign promises for what they are: hollow. Instead, young voters are constantly reminded that the government is making exorbitant amounts of money off of their struggles with debt. Just one program, the Parent PLUS Loan program, makes $3 billion a year for the government off of loans made to parents working to send their children to school.

Millennials Are Not Apathetic

In this context the deep cynicism of my generation is easily understood. We have inherited a massive economic problem that is readily apparent to Americans of all generations. Deep partisanship and gridlock have dominated our political perspective, and we have been conditioned to expect nothing from Congress.

The democratic process has done nothing for Millennials. We have no reason to believe that any Congressional or Senate candidate will be able to accomplish anything significant once in office regardless of party. Instead it is far more likely that they will only perpetuate the partisanship and gridlock which prevents substantive action.

In response, Millennials have simply withdrawn from the democratic process. This isn't apathy, it's realism.

Restoring Faith In Democracy

Calling Millennials "apathetic" mischaracterizes the roots of the problem. Someone standing in the rain is not apathetic about getting wet if they don't have an umbrella. Millennials care deeply about the challenges they face, because these challenges will economically handicap them for the rest of their lives.

Forced to choose between partisan candidates on the left and right, both of whom will accomplish nothing while perpetuating a dysfunctional system, Millennials have withdrawn from the process altogether. Their withdrawal from the democratic process may seem deeply cynical, but look at the state of American governance and say it isn't also justified.

Restoring Millennial faith in democracy doesn't require some grand solution. Millennials will vote if you give them a reason to vote. If you are a voter, regardless of age, be conscious of the candidates you support. Demand that politicians be realistic in their campaign promises, and earnest in their efforts. Support problem solvers who care about voters, not politicians who want to win key demographics.

As a community, let's promote this new brand of candidate, identify them now, and empower them to be successful. Now is the time to do this; if we wait until November, 2016, it will be too late.