The New York Times ran an interesting article today about how only a few young people in Obama’s inner circle have made the jump to run for public office. An interesting trend on its own, but the Times took this evidence a little too far and implied that millennials in general are not interested in public service. This conclusion was summed up by a former Obama pollster, Sergio Bendixen:
“After getting swept up by the Obama movement of 2008, [Bendixen] said, ‘They went on to the next website and then the next click on their computer. I just don’t see the generation as all that ideological or invested in causes for the long run.'”
I don’t know anything about Bendixen and his work, but assuming he wasn’t misquoted on this, I take extreme issue with this statement and the resulting implication that millennials don’t care about causes larger than themselves. His overall conclusion is problematic for two reasons:
One, it just isn’t true. Anyone with a cursory understanding of the social sector will know that millennials are a huge player in defining what social action looks like. While there may not be solid research on showing that millennials are more devoted to causes than previous generations, we certainly aren’t less committed. I could cite tons of research displaying this, but I won’t because if you are reading this, you probably already agree with me and I don’t want to waste your time. (But if you do want to see some studies, comment.) Bendixen’s assertion seems to rely only on anecdotal evidence and a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be socially committed these days. Which brings me to:
Two, Bendixen and the Times fell for what I’m going to call the “doing good sector” fallacy, which assumes you can only improve society through the nonprofit or government sector. In reality, all sectors have their role to play in the causes we care about. And more importantly, no one sector is unified. So even though young people may not be running for office in large numbers (and with Congressional approval ratings at 13%, who can blame them?), there are still many ways to engage with government: volunteering, working for an agency, or serving in a public liaison role in another organization. Even if they don’t want to work in government, the nonprofit and private sector offer many ways for socially conscious millennials to have a career with impact.
Unfortunately, it’s true that millennials aren’t going to work for government. But the problem isn’t that millennials are disengaged, it’s that government does not seem that attractive to us. Bickering and gridlock from Capitol Hill does not inspire much confidence in the institution. I’m all for more millennials getting into government service, but I don’t think that will happen until it proves itself as an effective entity to the broader population. (There are many examples of government effectiveness, don’t get me wrong, it just it isn’t perceived that way.)
It’s very easy to blame our perceived laziness and obsession with social media for the limited millennial interest in government service, but it’s much harder to understand why a very socially conscious generation may not be interested in government. Government no longer has a monopoly on social change, and if it doesn’t want to get left behind, it needs to think about how to incorporate millennials into its workforce.
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