Changing the conversation with millennials

November 12, 2015

In our time interning at Resource Media, protests dominated the news. This was a common theme in 2014 and continued into this year, from prolonged and widespread reactions to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, to major environmental demonstrations like Keystone XL and the People’s Climate March.

Yet despite this pronounced public action, last year was also marked by midterm elections with the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. This is in part due to a decrease in voters 29 and under, who represented 19% of the vote in the 2012 presidential election, but only 13% of the midterm election. Those under 29 and those over 65 both represent about one fifth of the population, yet those over 65 were twice as likely to vote as their young counterparts.

It’s hard to reconcile the record-breaking lows in voter turnout with the spike in Americans, particularly young Americans, who turn out to protest in the streets. But these trends away from formal political processes towards informal ones speak to a culture of widespread and deeply felt mistrust towards national institutions. A report by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 47% of millenials “said they felt that the political system is no longer capable of overcoming the challenges the nation faces.” And, as midterm elections would suggest, over half feel that their vote does not make a difference and that elected officials do not share their interests.

As millennials, we can understand why youth may be more inclined to turn to indirect forms of democracy rather than formal systems. We’ve lived through two failed wars, a recession, state-sanctioned violations of personal privacy, record-breaking rates of income inequality and incarceration, a government shutdown, and violations of international agreements against torture. We’ve grown up with rhetoric that tells us government is inefficient and mired with partisan gridlock. When we need solutions, government is not usually the first place we look.

But hopefully that can change. Many of the most pressing problems of our day–climate change, social inequality, and international violence–can only be solved through large-scale collective action and political reform. When we reject our institutions and don’t vote, we undermine our ability to solve these problems, which leads to further distrust.

The formidable challenge facing our generation, our society, (and perhaps those who specialize in communications) is to rebuild trust between the people and our institutions. We think the first step in this process is to transform the rhetoric of government dysfunction into one of cooperation and empowerment. We need to hear more stories about how formal institutions have succeeded and solved problems. We need to see more results and cooperation, and less inefficiency and bickering. We know glimmers of hope exist, and it’s time they shine through.

— Alice Cohen and Claire Kelloway, former Resource Media Interns