Millennials talk experiences, 'fundamental bargain'
BOSTON — Though it may seem to some that many millennials — defined as those Americans born between 1982 and 2000 — are not paying attention and operating outside of the political process, a panel of politically-involved millennials said Monday that it may just be that younger voters have a different view of that process.
"The first inklings of us starting to pay attention was the Clinton impeachment, then the 2000 recount, then 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, then came the 2008 financial crisis," Sen. Eric Lesser, a 31-year-old millennial from Longmeadow, said. "So it shouldn't be a surprise to people that our generation feels a little jaundiced about the political process."
Lesser and Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell were joined Monday morning by Dan Koh, the millennial chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, at a MASSterList and State House News Service event sponsored by GateHouse Media to discuss how millennials fit into the political sphere and how this generation of voters might shift the civic landscape.
"A lot of the buzz and the media attention is on the sort of hoodie-wearing, tech, 20-something and the sort of popularized notion is that our generation is kind of in good shape and everyone is an app developer living large in Kendall Square or something," Lesser said. "The reality of it is while we're a very hopeful and optimistic generation, the sort of fundamental bargain that our parents had — you work hard, you work your way through school, you pay off your tuition by working in the summers and working at night, and you can get a good job and settle down — it's just that people don't believe it anymore."
In June 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that millennials number 83.1 million and represent one quarter of the nation's population, eclipsing the total of 75.4 million Baby Boomers.
Campbell, a millennial who won her first race for public office last November and said she hates the label 'millennial,' said running for political office as a young person carries an additional set of challenges.
"It was not uncommon to meet someone at their door and they would say, 'I think you're a little young,' or 'I don't know that you'll understand the issues,'" Campbell, 33, said of her time campaigning last year.
Koh, who before joining Walsh's administration served as chief of staff to Arianna Huffington at The Huffington Post, said there remains an "old guard" that sometimes seems unwilling to come to terms with the fact that young people are now working in positions once dominated by older people.
"It's very interesting the diversity of reactions you get from that old guard. In my opinion, the more shrewd people treat me like the mayor's chief of staff," Koh said. "But there are many people who simply won't call me or return my phone calls because they don't like the fact that at the time a 29-year-old kid was calling them about an issue they would rather talk to a 47 or 48-year-old mayor about."
Lesser, Campbell and Koh agreed that the handful of major issues most important to millennials are student debt, housing costs, the new "gig" economy and access to good-paying jobs with upward mobility.
"Student debt and loan issues are a generational issue for us. It delays marriage decisions, it delays housing decisions and entering the housing market, it crowds out investment and spending and all kinds of other things that are important," Lesser said.
Since 1992, the average amount of student debt for an undergraduate who borrowed to pay for school has increased from $12,434 to $26,885 in 2012 — a 116.2 percent jump, according to the Pew Research Center. Also in 2012, 69 percent — a record amount — of recent college graduates had taken out student loans to finance their education, Pew reported.
Some of the issues facing millennials, Lesser said, are "inherent to being 22 or 23 years old, but a lot of it is the conscious decision of public policy that we have made it incredibly hard for a young person to get started."
Campbell, who said she still has "tremendous student debt" she accrued while attending law school, said she thinks the political system is paying attention to millennials, but may not be responding to their needs quickly enough.
To that end, Lesser is leading the Massachusetts Senate's Millennial Engagement Initiative to connect with millennials and bring more of them into the political process.
"I was born in 1985 and since 1985 basically every single segment of American life, of life in Massachusetts has fundamentally changed. The way we communicate is different, the way we work is different, the way we socialize is different. One place that has not changed is the State House, for better or worse," Lesser said. "Some aspects are nice, you know, you don't want to remove all the nice paintings, but my point is that the culture of how people interact with state government, how they share information with state government, how state government interacts with citizens is basically the same as it was in the 1980s and so we've got to work to change that."
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