Why Millennials don’t want to run for political office

Millennials are generally tuning out national politics, according to multiple studies. But that doesn't mean they aren't engaged. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/File/The Christian Science Monitor
In this file photo, millennials gather for a meal.

Millennials have all sorts of ideas as to how to improve the world. They just don't trust government to put these ideas to work. 

In a recent Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, Rutgers University political science Professor Shauna Shames writes that her research indicates millennials are becoming increasingly jaded in their attitudes toward their elected officials. Ms. Shames also wrote her interviews public policy and law students about their willingness to run for office in the story.

She didn't find apathy towards the major issues of the day. Quite the opposite, especially when it comes to justice, national security, a strong economy, racial and gender equality, and environmental conservation. These are all of great importance to tomorrow's leaders, according to Ms. Shames research.

But millennials – those loosely defined as being born in the early 1980s to the early 2000s – reject the idea these problems can be solved through politics. For political parties trying to engage voters and for a democracy to function effectively, this is a troubling trend. That isn't to say millennials aren't engaged - they volunteer at higher rates than previous generations, according to the book, "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics." They tend to see non-profit organizations as more effective and trustworthy than politicians and government. 

Ms. Shames isn't the first to observe that millennials are generally less engaged in politics that previous generations. In a study conducted by NewAmerica.org, researchers noted that millennials made up of 21 percent of voting population for the 2012 general election, but less than 50 percent of the voting-eligible millennials turned out. The report also mentions that millennials reject identifying with the major parties. Fifty percent of millennials consider themselves politically independent, and Generation X (1964-1985) had the second highest percentage of independents at 39 percent, according to a Pew Research study cited in the New America report. New America also found that millennials are retreating from other forms of civic engagement such as attending public meetings, participating in organized labor, and communicating with their neighbors.  

Only 24 percent of the American public reported having complete confidence and trust in the federal government as of February 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. And so it would seem that there is an expansive disconnect between the people and their delegates on Capitol Hill. This has soured millennials on national politics, according to Ms. Shames.

A Harvard Institute of Politics poll from the fall of 2014 also depicted a millennial generation that has become disillusioned with the current political climate, and by the rate in which millennials are rejecting national politics, the trends suggest that this demographic is mirroring what other age groups are lamenting about the federal government. Sixty-two percent of likely voters between the ages of 18-29 would vote to recall all members of Congress if it were possible, according to the poll.

Among the reasons why young people reject the idea of entering politics was the stress of constantly fundraising and the lack of privacy, according to Ms. Shames' report. She suggests that the way to get young people involved in politics is to diversify the class of people who usually end up running for office, and find viable candidates who are not necessarily white males from well-off backgrounds. These types of politicians are viewed negatively by young women, and research shows that a gender gap in political ambition can occur within women as early as age 18, according to a recent Duke University study.

In order to get more young people involved with politics, the game can no longer be played exclusively by the elite because, by and large, they approach issues like tax policy and economic policy from only their perspective, according to research by Nicholas Carnes, a public policy professor at Duke University. He found states that had active organized labor unions, such as Maine, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Oregon, and Nevada, can develop training programs to equip blue-collar and working-class candidates to run for elected office. These programs can be undertaken at a low cost using resources many labor unions already employ like newsletters and membership networks, according to the study.

“The imbalance in the social makeup of our legislative institutions has serious consequences for the direction of economic policy,” Mr. Carnes wrote. “Electing more legislators from the working class will make our legislative process less beholden to the interests of the privileged and more responsive to the needs of ordinary Americans.”

And perhaps, more appealing to millennials. 

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