What It’s Like to Be a Millennial in Congress

Tulsi Gabbard and Aaron Schock talk to <em>National Journal</em> about the challenges.

Tulsi Gabbard and  Aaron Schock speak at an event on millennials in Washington D.C. 
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein and Stephanie Czekalinski
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Ronald Brownstein and Stephanie Czekalinski
June 5, 2014, 5 p.m.

The ex­per­i­ence of the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion as it moves in­to adult­hood raises a new per­muta­tion of an old ques­tion: What hap­pens when an un­stop­pable force meets an im­mov­able ob­ject?

The un­stop­pable force is the massive wave of mil­len­ni­als — best defined as the more than 90 mil­lion people born between 1981 and 2002 — now en­ter­ing adult­hood. The im­mov­able ob­ject is the most stub­born eco­nom­ic slow­down since the Great De­pres­sion.

This gen­er­a­tion is “un­pre­ced­en­ted. The rules don’t ap­ply,” Richard Cooper, vice pres­id­ent for emer­ging is­sues and re­search at the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, ar­gued at a Na­tion­al Journ­al/At­lantic town hall un­der­writ­ten by Mi­crosoft about mil­len­ni­als in Wash­ing­ton last month. “The silos that have di­vided [pre­vi­ous] gen­er­a­tions — they’re in­ter­ested in go­ing right through those. Gender, race, demo­graph­ics, this is a gen­er­a­tion that doesn’t see those bar­ri­ers.”

But the chal­lenges this gen­er­a­tion faces are equally daunt­ing.

In March, 14.5 per­cent of people un­der 25 were un­em­ployed. That’s more than twice the un­em­ploy­ment rate for all work­ers, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by the Eco­nom­ic Policy In­sti­tute. The un­em­ploy­ment pic­ture for the young has im­proved since its April 2010 nadir, but young work­ers are still fa­cing a grim job mar­ket. Be­fore the re­cent re­ces­sion, the un­em­ploy­ment rate for those un­der 25 last ex­ceeded 14.5 per­cent in 1992.

In 2012, 36 per­cent of the na­tion’s young adults, ages 18 to 31, were liv­ing in their par­ents’ homes — the highest share in more than 40 years, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. And com­pared with pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, adult mil­len­ni­als carry re­cord levels of stu­dent-loan debt. About two-thirds of re­cent bach­el­or’s-de­gree re­cip­i­ents have such debt, with the total bur­den av­er­aging $27,000. Twenty years ago, only about half of new gradu­ates car­ried stu­dent debt.

These eco­nom­ic strains help ex­plain why adult mil­len­ni­als are also be­hind pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions in oth­er re­spects, as an­oth­er re­cent Pew re­port found. In 2013, only 26 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als ages 18 to 32 were mar­ried. At the same ages, 36 per­cent of Gen­er­a­tion X, 48 per­cent of baby boomers, and 65 per­cent of the earli­er Si­lent Gen­er­a­tion had all tied the knot.

Des­pite com­ing of age in his­tor­ic­ally tur­bu­lent eco­nom­ic con­di­tions, many young adults are mov­ing ahead — and be­gin­ning to re­shape the eco­nomy, the civic sec­tor, and the polit­ic­al sphere as they do. Mil­len­ni­als are at the be­gin­ning of a demo­graph­ic shift trans­form­ing Amer­ica: More than two-fifths of them are non­white. They are also the best-edu­cated gen­er­a­tion ever. In 2012, 90 per­cent of young adults held a high school dip­loma, a re­cord high. That year, for the first time, a third of young people held at least a four year-col­lege de­gree.

And they are uniquely wired. “While every gen­er­a­tion writes their page in his­tory, this gen­er­a­tion’s page is en­tirely di­git­al,” Cooper said.

Mil­len­ni­als aren’t us­ing their di­git­al savvy just to share va­ca­tion snaps. The ad­vances in com­mu­nic­a­tions tech­no­logy are mak­ing it easi­er for young people to start their own busi­nesses or non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions. Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce Found­a­tion, mil­len­ni­als launched about 160,000 start-ups each month in 2011.

Des­pite their eco­nom­ic chal­lenges, mil­len­ni­als re­main hope­ful about the fu­ture and con­fid­ent in their abil­it­ies. Sev­enty per­cent say they’re op­tim­ist­ic about their “eco­nom­ic pro­spects for the next few years,” ac­cord­ing to a re­cent on­line poll of young adults con­duc­ted by Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Paul Harstad.

Mil­len­ni­als are shap­ing the polit­ic­al land­scape, too. Their votes were in­stru­ment­al in Pres­id­ent Obama’s 2008 and 2012 vic­tor­ies. In 2016, they are pro­jec­ted to rep­res­ent 30 per­cent of the adult pop­u­la­tion, up from 17 per­cent in 2008. To as­sess the gen­er­a­tion’s ef­fect on polit­ics, Reps. Tulsi Gab­bard, D-Hawaii, and Aaron Schock, R-Ill., re­cently spoke with Ron­ald Brown­stein and Steve Clem­ons, ed­it­or of At­lanticLIVE, at last month’s mil­len­ni­al town hall in Wash­ing­ton. Gab­bard and Schock co­chair the Con­gres­sion­al Fu­ture Caucus, foun­ded in co­oper­a­tion with the non­par­tis­an Mil­len­ni­al Ac­tion Pro­ject. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

You are one of the first mil­len­ni­als in Con­gress. Look­ing at what you have seen so far, do you think there is any com­mon per­spect­ive on is­sues among mil­len­ni­als that of­fers a way out of the per­sist­ent par­tis­an di­vide?

Gab­bard: Ab­so­lutely, yes. This is a story that un­for­tu­nately doesn’t make the head­lines, but there is a strong and grow­ing un­der­cur­rent that is be­gin­ning in the halls of Con­gress. Aaron and I be­came friends be­cause we star­ted talk­ing and we star­ted to un­der­stand that we have the same frus­tra­tions, that we are both res­ults-driv­en in­di­vidu­als, and wherever we may fall on dif­fer­ent is­sues, we re­spect each oth­er and re­cog­nize that in or­der to reach that com­mon ob­ject­ive, we have to work to­geth­er. And that’s where there is hope for some change in the grid­lock that we see.

Is there a com­mon gen­er­ation­al per­spect­ive on the budget that of­fers a path around the dead­lock we’re in?

Gab­bard: I think there is. With­in the gen­er­a­tion, there are broad strokes of re­cog­ni­tion that one of the ma­jor reas­ons we’re in the po­s­i­tion we’re in today is a large lack of trust and frus­tra­tion from the tax­pay­er that gov­ern­ment isn’t man­aging the tax­pay­er dol­lars well and in ways that are ac­tu­ally serving the needs of our com­munit­ies. I think that’s a com­mon­al­ity that all of us can agree on. Then fig­ur­ing out, what are the core re­spons­ib­il­it­ies and how do we fund these things? What I’ve seen is, we can’t even have those con­ver­sa­tions be­cause people haven’t taken the time to es­tab­lish those re­la­tion­ships.

As more of your gen­er­a­tion moves in­to po­s­i­tions of in­flu­ence, will there be more of a fo­cus on de­volving power?

Gab­bard: The en­tre­pren­eur­i­al spir­it is present not only in busi­ness, but that in­nov­a­tion also has to hap­pen in gov­ern­ment. I think we have the op­por­tun­ity to really shift the way things maybe have been done, to where you’re not afraid to sit down and col­lab­or­ate and have a con­ver­sa­tion. From a gen­er­a­tion­al per­spect­ive, there’s a sense of ur­gency and im­pa­tience and not sit­ting here think­ing, “I plan to serve in Con­gress for the next 40 years, so here’s my 40-year plan.”

To what de­gree do you and Rep­res­ent­at­ive Gab­bard find yourselves on the same path?

Schock: We are to­geth­er in a dis­dain for the status quo. We are to­geth­er in our lack of ap­pre­ci­ation for pro­cesses in­stead of out­comes, and we are to­geth­er that while we may have strong prin­cipled views that vary, that we also be­lieve we grew up in a so­ci­ety where you don’t get everything you want. Some call that com­prom­ise; some call that ne­go­ti­ation. I like to call that real­ity. I like to think that people of all ages — but par­tic­u­larly people in Con­gress in their 20s and 30s — tend to have that real­ity more so than our peers. One party con­trols the House, one party con­trols the Sen­ate, and with­in their re­spect­ive cham­bers they con­trol the pro­cess. But at the end of the day, if you’re not ac­com­plish­ing any­thing out of it, what are you con­trolling?

Let me ask you about the so­ci­ology of the House. Are mil­len­ni­als wired dif­fer­ently? Are you feared by your eld­ers in both parties when you’re on In­s­tagram, when you’re on Twit­ter?

Schock: Ob­vi­ously, I didn’t join this body to be­come one of the — as I call them — old crusties. At the same time, I can­not be suc­cess­ful as an is­land. So at the end of the day, your chal­lenge is to re­main dif­fer­en­ti­ated, keep your pas­sion, but at the same time earn the re­spect and even­tu­al sup­port of your col­leagues on the is­sues you care about. So if you go surf­ing and you post a photo that per­haps an 80-year-old wouldn’t, they might chuckle. But so long as you show them re­spect and you’re ser­i­ous on the is­sues and can de­bate on policy, then I’ve found it can work, that you can en­gage people out­side of this world of Wash­ing­ton that you would oth­er­wise not reach, while also main­tain­ing a sense of cred­ib­il­ity on the cam­pus.

What could be some neg­at­ives of the rise of mil­len­ni­als?

Schock: We didn’t have enough kids. The prob­lems with Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity would be great if we all had six kids. The prob­lem is that our par­ents didn’t have enough chil­dren. Based on birth rates, we aren’t go­ing to have enough chil­dren. And the good news is that we’re liv­ing longer than our par­ents and our grand­par­ents. So the way the sys­tems are struc­tured right now we’re headed to­ward a pretty steep cliff.

And while I just went on prais­ing the trans­par­ency and the in­stant­an­eous com­mu­nic­a­tion, I also think can­didly that does force the in­sti­tu­tion to play more to the cam­er­as than per­haps it had pri­or to the in­stant­an­eous and con­stant cov­er­age. 

This was part of the event series A New Amer­ica: How Mil­len­ni­als are Spark­ing Change, un­der­writ­ten by Mi­crosoft. Watch the event here.

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