Young People Won’t Change America

So you want to change the world? Good for you, but you probably can’t.

Say you want to change education. Go to college. Join Teach for America. Cry tears of sadness during the first month when you realize the harrowing responsibilities of being a teacher. Cry tears of joy during your last month when you’ve changed your classroom. Now you’re ready to change the world. So many big problems to solve.

You ask: If only our country did (or stopped doing) X to educate our children! What if we better supported Catholic schools, public schools, or made higher education more affordable? Creating that dent in the education system requires adding or removing a current government policy. You lobby your congresswoman on a student debt proposal, but are promptly told that it’s an election year, and “nothing gets done in an election year.” We’re stuck in the mud of government.

Say you want to change the environment. Go to college. Join Green Corps, a one-year field school in environmental organizing. Work with the Sierra Club on a campaign to pressure Kellogg’s supplier of palm oil to stop destroying tropical rainforests. Filled with idealism (and critiques of your service organization), you want to create a dent in the way the United States deals with climate change.

You ask: If only our country joined the international community to fight climate change! You resolve to persuade your congressman to join your cause. Then you realize that you’re from Oklahoma and your senator, James Inholfe, just gave a speech in which he throws a snowball on the Senate floor to disprove climate change. And then you find out that he’s the top-ranking senator on the environment. Again, we’re stuck in the mud of government.

Say you want to protect human life. Go to college. Join college students across the country in DC every January for the March for Life, where you lock hands in solidarity with other pro-life Americans and gaze up at the Supreme Court. Shelve the idealism for ten years while you become an investment banker to make some money, pay off your loans, and gain influence. But you never forget your desire to put a dent in the way our country protects human life.

You ask: if only our country committed itself to the dignity of human life from conception to natural death! You use your money and influence to start a pro-life organization. That pro-life organization comes to Washington, D.C. with a bold vision. When you get there, you realize Congress is only discussing whether to restrict abortions at 20 weeks or at 24 weeks. Or it’s debating whether to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood — which only performs 1% of its abortions with federal funds. Once more, we’re stuck in the mud of government.

The point is: any issue you care about — education, poverty, immigration, climate change — that’s important, but the issue you care about is not going to change unless we have a better politics.

It’s not like we don’t have the potential. Millennials (between ages 18 and 34) passed Baby Boomers last year as America’s largest living generation — at 75.3 million voters strong.

We’re arguably America’s most politically independent, too. You could say that millennials lean Democrat or Republican, and that our independence is largely an illusion.

Well, if you only offer Natty or Keystone to a crowd of thirsty college students, they are going to choose one. They’ll drink it but they won’t like it.

Millennials have the numbers and the desire to change our country and politics — if we choose to exercise that power. Why don’t we?

Young people are more interested in solutions than politics. We’re energized by the opportunity to solve big, meaningful problems (isn’t that what you told that McKinsey recruiter?). But our government is slow, hamstrung by bureaucracy, and polarized beyond belief. So we look elsewhere to change the world.

We join consulting, where we influence those that can influence. Why not be the influencers ourselves?

We join the private sector, where we are limited by the goals of those above us. We’re limited by government policies (taxes, regulation, codes, etc.) and are often beholden to shareholders rather than to the community.

The “good” ones (like Pat) join a nonprofit, but the vast majority of nonprofits struggle for visibility and are severely limited by funding. If you’re lucky, you get a big donor — but he or she can now dictate your priorities.

Whether you advocate for big or small government, you acknowledge that the government gets to make the laws that govern how everyone lives. Whether you run for office, work in public service, or become engaged in the political process— ultimately, some of the greatest impact one can have is through influencing the actions of government. It’s not a matter of making government bigger or smaller, but making it better.

If young people have the size and desire to solve the big, meaningful problems that will shape our future, why not work together to make our country and politics work for us?

We’ll never change the world if we keep running from politics. But we can make a dent in our country if we become energized by politics as a seemingly impossible problem that can only be solved by America’s largest, most solutions-minded, most independent generation. Us.

-Sean