The 2016 presidential election marked the first time Millennials matched Baby Boomers for “percentage of population eligible to vote.” When boomers held the title of largest eligible voting group, they delivered a measure of power in the political process that had never been seen before. For decades, they steered the country — passing policy that directly benefitted them.
Would millennials leap into the political fray and wield their numbers like a cudgel, picking the presidential candidate that made the most sense for them and their lives? Most people said “LOL. Prolly not.” Because young people are consistently painted as more apathetic and cynical than their predecessors, especially when it comes to voting. But, is that trope backed up by facts?
Despite the low favorability rate of the two 2016 presidential candidates and the discord of the election, turnout rates for those 18-29 were nearly identical to those in the 2012 election, jumping up from 49 percent to 50. That’s right around where they were in 2004 and 2008 as well. Even in 1964, only 50.9 percent of people 18-24 voted, so voices droning on about how things were “in our days” may be right about how much cheaper gas was, but not about voter turnout. But while these rates have remained somewhat consistent, engagement could be better when it comes to non-presidential elections and crucial ballot measures. To say nothing of state and local elections.
According to a poll from Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), 76 percent of millennials paid attention to the presidential election, but only 28 percent did the same with congressional contests. Why does this matter? Well, the 2016 election saw 97% of congressional incumbents get re-elected, despite a 19% approval rating for Congress on Election Day. Dissecting track records and policy stances for congressional candidates could make a difference when it comes to that odd discrepancy, so more focus is needed by young voters on both sides of the fence. It’s pretty clear that the institutions we rely upon won’t function for all without pressure from an engaged citizenry — pressure that manifests itself through activism, which young people excel at, but also through votes.
Abby Kiesa, the Director of Impact at CIRCLE, makes it clear that the negative frame in the media about apathetic young voters can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, dissuading young people from participating while simultaneously eliminating any responsibility older people have to help younger generations engage.
“Research suggests that in order for people to take action, there has to be some sort of intervention,” she says. “Someone has to ask them or someone has to provide some sort of space or resources.”
A solution that can be put in place in every person’s life is to listen to millennials, welcome them into the civic discussion, and enable them to affect the world around them in a positive way — not write them off or tune them out.
“I think that being a part of spaces where youth voice is acknowledged and valued and where you have a kind of supportive environment is really helpful” Kiesa says. “So you can kind of build skills and maybe practice and think about yourself in a different way.”
One non-profit that Kiesa points to as a standout is Youth Build, which teaches young people without jobs or degrees construction skills by setting them up to build affordable housing in their communities. Aggregate data steadily demonstrates a lower level of activism and civic engagement among non-student Millennials, so efforts like this are crucial — preparing people to become agents of change in their communities, even without college.
“People have a job for one or two years where they’re building workforce skills, but it’s also very focused on building skills to contribute to a community,” says Kiesa of Youth Build.