Millennials have been hearing about how horrible we are from the cable news finger-waggers and the professional opinion-havers at The New York Times since what feels like forever. At this point, the jabs start to feel meaningless. And, besides, one person's "lazy and entitled" is another person's "crippling debt and desire to be treated like a human."
There's a problem with this agree-to-disagree arrangement: the disparaging generation makes a staggering amount of decisions for the generation it disparages. According to a 2016 study by Portland State University, the median age for a mayoral election voter is 57 years old. And fewer than 15% of registered voters turned out for local elections around the country. This is particularly troubling within the millennial cohort, because it basically allows older people — some of whom don't think very highly of young people — to exert outsized control over the inner workings of our day-to-day lives. Because as much as we may fear turning our heads away from the White House for even one second, it's our local and state officials who call the shots on critical issues like education, housing, police, and transportation.
But it's not like millennials aren't politically motivated. This is a generation that is civically engaged, demands our country reckon with the ugly parts of its past, and uses hashtags to draw attention to causes and enact actual change. We just don't vote for some reason. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that 58% of millennials in one poll said they don't believe elected officials share their priorities, and 62% believe elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons. Our not voting only exacerbates that feeling, by allowing politicians who don't share our values to take office.
"Millennial advocacy is volunteering, being out there. That instant gratification of going to a food bank and helping out and saying 'I can see immediately the value of my time and effort in helping someone.' Government is really slow and arduous. We need to create a process where we’re not waiting for millennials to come to us," California State Assembly Leader Ian Calderon told Teen Vogue.
In 2012, the then 27-year-old Calderon became the first millennial elected to the California State Legislature, representing its 57th district. Three years later, he became the youngest majority leader in the history of California. Out of the gate, he showed a commitment to prioritizing the needs of young people, ensuring they had an advocate within the state government. Once more millennials joined him in the Assembly, Calderon, who is a Democrat, partnered with a young Republican to form the California Millennial Caucus, a coalition dedicated to getting young people engaged and crafting policies that better address their problems.
Calderon says issues of financial literacy and student loan debt take priority within the caucus, as the Great Recession dealt a blow that continues to impact millennials nearly a decade later. The median compensation for a 30-year-old in 2014 was less than that of a 30-year-old in 2004 — and yet millennials have more advanced degrees than any generation in history. And, as many of us are painfully aware, this education comes at a steep cost: student loan debt in the U.S. is over $1.26 trillion, and millennials ages 25–34 have an average debt of $21,000, according to Credit Sesame.
To alleviate some of that weight, Calderon and the Millennial Caucus have pushed a bill that increases transparency with regards to loans. "I've met kids who have a 20% interest rate on their student loans," he says. "You can never refinance that. We're going to try to require universities to say, 'OK guys, here's how much you borrowed and when you graduate, here's how much you're going to pay.'"
The caucus is also working on legislation that proposes tuition-free college in California and encourages growth in the tech sector. But Calderon stresses that the caucus doesn't limit themselves to issues that only focus on young people, saying, "there’s a lot of policy that may not necessarily come from the perspective of millennials but affect millennials nonetheless."
Through all his advocacy, Calderon understands something about the millennial generation that has been harder for older assembly members to grasp. "[Older] people are always showing up at the Capitol, telling us what their concerns are. But millennials aren't going to engage that way...we have to go to where they are. In my own district, I have four separate colleges, so we do ‘pizza and politics.’ My own version of town hall, right at these schools," he says.
Despite his willingness to meet millennials where they are, Calderon does hope their interest in local and state politics will grow. He reminds people “the difficult thing about politics in general is it takes time and effort. Democracy is at its most successful when the electorate is up to date and educated in regards to politicians and politics. The best way to do it is to learn about your elected officials. Do some research about them and show up to an event they are doing.”
If millennials were to take his advice, the impact could be enormous. It's a group that has surpassed the Baby Boomers in size and are the most diverse generation ever. Though we may not be fond of institutions, local and state governments possess tremendous power over their constituents.