If Millennials Dislike Politics So Much, Will They Actually Be Able to Change Anything?

New data suggests that growing pessimism among millennials about politics is driving young people away from careers in public service. But this may be exactly what perpetuates the cycle of failed policy in Washington.

In a recent piece in the Atlantic, Ron Fournier highlights the conundrum of this generation of passionate, yet-disaffected young Americans coming of age in the new millennium. According to his surveys, 47% of young Americans (born between 1982 and 2003) agree that "Politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges out country is facing." Only 16% disagreed.

With an unpopular congress, outrage over unpopular policies such as government surveillance programs, and an ever-polarized American political climate continuing to dominate headlines this year, it is not surprising that youth trust in government is at an all time low. It comes as no shock, then, that Ezra Klein's "14 Reasons Why This Is the Worst Congress Ever" in the Washington Post and John Hawkins' "5 Reasons Why America Is In Decline" in Townhall have been popular articles shared by millennials eager to highlight America's failures in the 21st century. 

The problem is, this pervasive political pessimism does not correspond with a lack of passion about policy challenges. Millennials, in general, are more fervently committed to policy engagement and community service than previous generations. The National Conference on Citizenship reports that Millennials have the highest rate of participation in community service at 43%, compared to only 35% for Baby Boomers. What's more, a study by the Government Business Council found that young Americans are also increasingly aware of the community relevance of their jobs, despite recent economic woes these young Americans must face upon graduation. "Young Americans are more concerned with the importance of their work than the salary attached to it," the study found after a national survey of recent college graduates.

Millennials' use of social media to engage with policy issues online shows that they are increasingly engaged in policy debates, and not just concerned with domestic issues. For example, young Americans rose up in droves on Twitter and Facebook to support and follow fellow youths seeking democracy in the Arab world. Young voices on social media grew a flutter with joy over the survival of Malala Yusafzai, the young Pakistani girl facing the ultimate personal risks to defend a girls' basic right to education.

Fournier interviewed students at some of the leading public policy schools and found that even those millennials most devoted in their studies to policy issues are unattracted to conventional careers in public service, and not only for financial reasons. "I want to change the world," a Public Policy student Brian Chialinsky at the Kennedy School said. "I can't do that in elective office." This opinion rings loud and clear when one considers the fact that this leading public policy school ended up with around 40% of its graduates in private sector jobs.

Careers in government were once incredibly popular. After World War II millions of young Americans found work in growing government institutions. Today, the Government Business Council reports that fewer young people are pursuing government jobs than ever. Only 6% of current college students plan to work for public sector institutions, and only 2.3% want to work at the federal level. And, despite widespread reports of a politically mobilized youth in the 2008 election, young voters still only made up about 19% of the electorate.

However, these figures can be deceptive when one considers the expanding role of private sector innovation in the realm of public service. With Silicon Valley taking the reigns exploring solutions to global poverty, and standout young Americans like Mark Zuckerberg transforming modern society with internet innovations that can impact how citizens interact and mobilize, there is no doubt that conventional approaches to social change within the halls of Washington are perceived as outdated. 

"A generation ago," Fournier insists, "government had a monopoly on public service. To millennials, the world is filled with injustice and need, but government isn't the solution. They have apps for that."

But turning the brightest, most compassionate members of a generation away from Washington is not a solution. We need to find creative ways to engage American youths in policy roles to support their potential to help push our nation forward in a complicated, ever-evolving world. Realistic evaluations of the state of our nation and the challenges facing us — both domestically and internationally — are of course necessary. However, focusing on re-stating pessimistic outlooks regarding the challenges our generation faces risks leaving a generation, and a country, in a rut.