by Pete Mazzaccaro
I’ve gotten a little tired of hearing the word millennial. Actually, I don’t hear it nearly as often as I see it. Trying to figure out what’s wrong with millennials is a news genre unto itself. Why don’t they vote? Why don’t the read the news? Why don’t they buy houses? I’ve grown so tired of the term that when I read last week of a new Chrome extension that would convert the word “millennial” on any Web page to “Snake People,” I almost installed it.
Part of it, I must admit has to do with the fact that I’m a card-carrying member of Generation X – the Korean War of generations between the Boomers and the Millennials. The most media attention my generation gets is that we’re the affectionate, thematic gag of the skit comedy show “Portlandia.”
But back to the subject at hand. I’ve written a bit here about younger people (aka millennials) in this space before – about the challenges of the job market for new college grads, about how the generation appears to favor urban neighborhoods, and how it’s generally distrustful of all institutions.
But in the last week, I’ve read some reporting that has continued to build on a theme that the youngest adults among us are essentially pathologically resistant to all the trappings of society. The only way to engage them is through positive messages and, of course, smartphone apps.
One particular story caught my attention last week. It was focused on civic engagement and news consumption, and representative of what many in the news and society in general are concerend about – that millennials are declining to participate.
A recent study by the Knight Foundation that was highlighted in Philly Magazine’s Citified blog, found millennials were willfully and blissfully ignorant of the political process, with record numbers failing to care about voting in recent elections. As the piece pointed out, Philadelphia’s primary election managed to turn out just 27 percent of eligible voters to the polls in an election that essentially decided the mayor’s race.
Millennials, the study said, didn’t vote for three reasons: They didn’t trust the news, didn’t see how local politics affected their everyday lives, and their peers didn’t vote, making it perfectly acceptable to be part of the ranks of the disaffected.
The solutions? Knight didn’t have much to offer: Engage millennials at events, create a welcome pack for new residents, release smartphone apps for information and get celebrities to encourage participation. No offense to Knight, but they tried the same thing in the 90s with “Rock the Vote.”
While I can appreciate the Knight Foundation’s study, I have a hard time believing that millennials are any more alienated than any generation before them. The complaints of young people not being as responsible as the generations before them are as old as complaining itself, and can be found in some of the first writings of ancient Greece.
And many of the reasons found for explaining low millennial turnout could just as well describe the same for my generation and those older than me. I’ve heard many people with graying hair say the same things about politics and voting – that it just doesn’t matter.
I have no idea what the solution might be for 27 percent voter turnout. But I suspect it has very little to do with trying to fix the voters and more to do with fixing the choices they have.