ANDERSON — Millennials consistently see community service, activism and their career choices as ways to make their political messages heard, instead of focusing on elections or advocating for a particular political party, political scientists say.
“Many young people believe they can really make a difference there, when they aren’t sure their vote matters,” said Joe Losco, a professor emeritus of political science at Ball State University.
A 2013 Bipartisan Policy Institute study backs up Losco’s assertion, showing 58 percent of millennials (people roughly ages 18 to 29) choose community involvement as a way to make major positive changes in society, versus 32 percent who see political involvement at a local, state or federal level as the answer. Just 13 percent said they had seriously considered running for political office.
A poll after the November 2016 presidential election found 67 percent of millennial voters regularly volunteer for a community organization. And 79 percent said they had donated money for a political cause or to an organization, according to a study conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
In contrast, fewer said they had volunteered for a political campaign (17 percent) or donated money to a campaign (25 percent).
Other data suggests many young people aren’t as attuned as other age groups to public affairs.
Looking at all millennials, not just voters, about 15 percent said they have a general interest in public affairs. About 30 percent of middle-aged people express such an interest.
Much of young people’s disenchantment with traditional politics can be blamed, Losco argues, on the Obama administration, which relied on young people during campaigning but failed to speak to their issues while in office.
“He didn’t follow through with that momentum, or his promise to keep young people engaged in the process,” Losco said. “Since 2008 there has been a lot of disillusionment about what can be done in the political arena.”
Though the Obama administration didn’t help, Anderson University Professor of Political Science Michael Frank argues that, across generations, young people are generally slow to seek political engagement.
“This is something that is persistent across cohorts — people who are young tend to have less interest in politics,” Frank said.
One key is that young people are still “getting their feet wet,” in life after graduating college or beginning a career. And few have formed a permanent connection to a community.
“It takes a bit ... until you put down roots in a community and have that job you are settling into," he said. "It's under those circumstances when you begin to focus on community and politics."
Many young people, facing rising student debt and underemployment, delay getting married, starting a family and developing a personal interest in local public policy.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media, however, are driving more millennials to discuss politics and keep abreast of national and international news. And surveys reflect that an increasing number of young and middle-aged adults have tried to influence others' votes. This increase has been especially pronounced among young adults.
“One in three (millennials) said in 2012 they tried to influence someone’s vote. ... By influencing someone’s vote, what they mean is: I am engaged with someone on social media,” Frank said.
Despite an avalanche of political protests beginning with President Trump’s election and continuing with the recent March for Science, neither Losco nor Frank see young people becoming more politically engaged, at least not in the long run.
“Politics is a game you are in for keeps and for life," Losco said. "A short-term burst doesn’t really amount to much. Everyone is up in arms right now, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan. You can keep people agitated for only so long.”
As politicians continue to ignore young people and millennials face pressing problems such as college debt and unemployment, Frank considers them blameless for their political detachment.
“I don’t look at the millennials in general, or college students in any time in particular, as being bad citizens in any way,” the AU political science professor said.