What It’s Like to Be a Millennial in Congress

Tulsi Gabbard and Aaron Schock talk to National Journal about the challenges.

Tulsi Gabbard and  Aaron Schock speak at an event on millennials in Washington D.C. 
National Journal
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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