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By Sen. Eric Lesser (Massachusetts State Senator and former White House aide) and Sen. Ryan Fattman (American state legislator currently serving in the Massachusetts State Senate)
It’s easy to throw up your hands with the political process these days. Members of our generation, in particular, no longer view government as a way to solve big problems.
And why should we? We’ve come of age in a world where technology is transforming every sector of American life. We shop, socialize, travel, work and communicate in dramatically different ways than our parents did.
But one sector that has failed to innovate is government, which remains frozen in place while everything else moves faster than ever. In this environment, it’s easy to lose faith in the political process to be a force for change. And that’s exactly what’s happened. In a recent Harvard survey, only 7 percent of millennials reported participating in a government, political or issue-related organization during the past year.
There are bright spots, however. In the same survey, one-third of millennials said they participated in community service. This shows that despite cynicism about the political process, the desire to make a difference is still there.
Public leaders can do a better job appealing to that sense of service. When challenged to make a difference, young people answer the challenge.
We know this personally, because despite coming from different parties, we both entered politics in similar ways; as a 16-year-old in Longmeadow working with classmates to fight budget cuts and protect teacher jobs, and as a 21-year-old in Sutton successfully fighting to televise bi-weekly selectman meetings and promote transparency.
The stakes could not be higher for our generation. Median income for young adults is the lowest since 1995. A difficult economy is exacerbated by the student debt crisis. In Massachusetts, average student debt has increased 75 percent over the past decade, to nearly $30,000. While our parents and grandparents were generally able to work hard, pay for college, get a good job, buy a house, and start a family, we’re not seeing the same opportunities passed to our generation.
The end result is that millennials feel frustrated and disengaged from politics, at a time when their voice and participation in democracy is more important than ever.
That’s why the Massachusetts Senate launched the “Millennial Engagement Initiative.”
Instead of telling millennials what government should do, our aim is to ask young people what they want it to do, and work to make that happen through the legislative process. The initiative held its first listening session in Springfield in February, and will be making stops across Massachusetts in the coming weeks and months.
These conversations are important because the needs of millennials, more often than not, reflect the needs of our Commonwealth as a whole. Whether it’s student debt, affordable housing, or the desire for a more efficient and transparent government, the issues most important to millennials are important to all of us.
Our generation is highly diverse, service-oriented and tech-savvy. And that’s a good thing, since the responsibility to overcome the biggest challenges we face as a Commonwealth will fall squarely on our shoulders.
By engaging young people, government can open itself to new ideas, methods and results that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
Senators Eric P. Lesser (D-Longmeadow) & Ryan C. Fattman (R-Webster), both age 31, are Co-Chairs of the Massachusetts Senate’s Millennial Engagement Initiative.