How NOT to Engage Young People to Vote

I’m not young. I turned 18 in 1988, when no one seemed to care much about politics, probably because everything was so neatly swept under the rug. Most of my friends and family finished college and stepped right into decent entry-level positions. We had a brush with war in the early 1990s, but it didn’t impact us much. We grew up thinking we had worked hard and deserved everything we have… that we should have more.

I’m from Generation X. I’m not even a boomer (my parents are), but to young voters, we’re all boomers.

My daughter, a registered voter, was born in 2001. Her early years included the September 11th attacks, two wars and a “War on Terror.” Then she got to see eight years of racists hating on Obama. Then one of those racists became President. And now here we are, dealing with a global pandemic, a financial collapse, and so, so, so much unrest.

Most of her friends are struggling. Financially for sure, but also mentally and even physically as things continue to worsen. Despite being constantly called “spoiled” and “entitled” by older people, they have been out marching, signing petitions and trying to foster meaningful change.

They care a LOT about the future, but when it comes to the election, many of them don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel the way we do. How could they? This is all our fault.

It’s important to note that the stimulus package completely ignored young adults. Those who could be claimed as a dependent got nothing. Parents could get $500 per dependent under 17. Young adults who were working the (now largely nonexistent) low-wage jobs through college or just getting out on their own were left in the dust, and no one seemed to care or even notice. All the same, the stimulus package was rolled out inequitably — and that, my friends, was a bipartisan effort.

Recently, I ran into a discussion around a question: How can we engage young voters? Everyone in the thread was female and, I presume, over 40. What followed was, what seemed to me, a list of exactly what not to do. As I said earlier, I’m middle-aged and certainly no expert, but I’ve been around young adults enough to know what definitely won’t be effective.

1. Do Not Text Them

It’s annoying for us to get six or seven texts a day from political groups and volunteers. Perhaps one 20-year-old out of ten will be receptive, but the other nine will block you and complain to whoever is around, sending you a few steps backward. Not a good idea.

2. Do Not Waste Paper

Listen. Young people are serious about this climate thing. It’s not just an abstract idea to them. I’ve spoken to several young adults who are afraid to ever have children because of the looming crisis WE created. If you send them snail mail or print out post cards, you will be illustrating exactly why they don’t want to be part of the political process.

3. Do Not Lecture Them

I know it’s hard to believe, but young voters do know what’s going on. They’re living it and, as a whole, they’re better than older adults at vetting information. And they are fully aware of the consequences of not voting. Calling them spoiled and entitled won’t do any good, nor will lecturing them about what they should be feeling. This (dare I say “Karen?”) attitude makes them feel patronized and possibly even less inclined to take part in the political environment they had no hand in creating.

4. Don’t Try to Social Media Them

Unless you’re already great at TikTok, Snapchat or Instagram, you’re not going to “meet them where they are” by busting into those arenas. Why do you think they abruptly stopped using Facebook? They will ignore you there.

So What Can We “Olds” Do?

Listen to them! They have ideas. They make decisions. They solve problems. They may not care so much about healthcare and other issues that top the list for older people, but if you ask them how they feel about jobs, the environment and social justice, you may be surprised at where the conversation goes. You might even learn a lot.

Advocacy groups are already in their spheres, sharing information. I’m too old to know what many of those groups are these days, but Rock the Vote comes to mind — and, of course, Black Lives Matter. We may not have a clue who the celebrities are, but they’re a lot more influential than we are and it couldn’t hurt to amplify the messages that are already resonating.

Keep in mind that today’s youth have been through a lot. They’re coming of age during a really difficult time. I don’t blame any of them for feeling like my generation and above have caused the problems they now have to fix. In fact, I deeply admire them as a generation and I can’t wait until they’re running the show.

Here’s the thing. If you want young voters to show up in November, look at what they’re inheriting from us. Take a minute to appreciate them as human beings. Then get out there and advocate for them. We owe them a lot more than they owe us.

Executive Director of the American Consortium for Equity in Education.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store