Engaging Disaffected Millennials

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal’s “Washington Wire” on December 10, 2014 and written by Linda Killian. Click here to read this article on The Wall Street Journal’s website. 


This week’s Gallup poll showing Barack Obama‘s standing with white millennials down to 34% reflects the severe disaffection young Americans have with not only the president but with both parties and the entire political system.

Americans ages 20 to 34 are 21% of the U.S. population and the country’s largest adult demographic. But their participation rate in the November midterms was the worst of any age group. Only about 21% of adult millennials cast a ballot; exit polls showed that voters 30 and younger represented only 13% of the electorate.

This lack of participation is driven partly by apathy and partly by their belief that politics is not the way to address the nation’s problems. This feeling has been exacerbated by the political dysfunction in Washington and by their disappointment that Mr. Obama has not delivered on his promise to change the political system.

A recent study by Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that 80% of young adults do not consider themselves to be politically engaged. Only 18% said that they believe the way to solve the country’s important issues is through the political system.

This presents a challenge for organizations such as the Millennial Action Project, which seeks to give young people more of a voice in governing. This group was behind the organization of the bipartisan Congressional Future Caucus for lawmakers under 40 (though older members can join). There are about 40 such lawmakers in the current Congress; about 20 more were elected in November.

Republican Elise Stefanik, 30, of Upstate New York, just became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. But Steven Olikara, the Millennial Action Project’s founder, laments that there is still not a single member of Congress younger than 30.

Last week the Millennial Action Project partnered with the Nexus Youth Summit to sponsor a summit on Capitol Hill to bring together political leaders, young philanthropists and social groups.

An estimated $30 trillion will transfer to millennials through inheritance over the next several decades, and Jonah Wittkamper, Nexus’s co-founder and director. is trying to encourage these wealthy millennials to think strategically about philanthropy.

But the wealthy are not the only millennials who believe in charitable giving: 87% of those under age 35 gave a financial gift to nonprofits last year.

The Capitol Hill summit included panels on 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 as well as how millennials can use philanthropy to promote social change.

“This new generation of leaders can make cooperation sexy,” Mr. Olikara told me.

That was certainly the vibe at the summit, where Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican who pushed for the 2013 government shutdown, talked about the need for bipartisanship and citizen engagement even as he criticized the Affordable Care Act and the administration’s action on immigration.

“This town is corrupt,” Sen. Cruz declared. “The American people need to rise up and hold their elected officials accountable.”

Perhaps it will be millennials who make that happen.