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Understanding Millennials, Politically Speaking

At 27, I was the first Millennial elected to the California State Legislature and the sole voice for my generation. During my campaign, I faced an uphill battle to gain voters’ trust and prove my qualifications. My age was baselessly used to paint me as unready and unable to handle elected office. I know firsthand the challenges and frustrations Millennials face when we put forth the effort to engage with our political system and are not taken seriously.

The numerous articles on Millennials and their place in civic life are as contradictory as they are condescending. Millennials are simultaneously a civic disappointment portrayed as entitled, narcissistic, and too connected to social media to care about the demise of our democracy yet also an untapped political force charged with saving the country and the world. An endless supply of pundits and politicians tell our generation what we need to care about, what we need to do, and how we should engage with our society and our politics but far fewer stop to hear what we think about our political institutions and the issues we all face.

It’s not that we don’t care; in fact Millennials volunteer at higher rates than other generations, we engage in consumer activism, and use social media and technology to advance civic causes. However, Millennials are deeply distrustful of politics and struggle to see government as an effective institution to create political change. According to a 2014 study by the Harvard University Institute of Politics, 58% of millennials believe elected officials don’t share their priorities. 62% believe elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons. You can understand why we feel this way when there are ready examples of partisan bickering, political grandstanding, and self-interested power grabs on every media outlet yet a distinct lack of progress on issues impacting our daily lives.

Even in California, where the Legislature has responded to tough issues by raising the minimum wage, expanding tax credits for working class families, protecting our environment and ensuring equal pay for equal work, politics can move at a frustratingly slow pace. It’s no wonder that Millennials would turn to volunteerism and new forms of participation where their efforts yield immediate, tangible progress.

Millennials face many challenges. Some are unique to our generation; others have been discussed and debated for decades. College affordability and student loan debt threaten to crush a generation that increasingly needs an education in order to survive. Millennials have an average student debt of $41,286.60, which is about $12,000 more than the national average for college graduates. Having access to good-paying jobs and affordable housing is an issue on the anxious minds of many Millennials. Consider that workers who start their careers in a recession, as many Millennials did, earn 2.5 to 9% less per year than those who do not for at least 15 years after starting a career. Additionally, the median compensation for a 30-year-old today is below that of a 30-year-old in 2004 and roughly the same as a 30-year-old in 1984, despite the facts that Millennials are 50% more likely to have graduated from college and that the current economy is 70% more productive. These are real challenges that will have serious consequences if left unaddressed.

If we truly believe in a representative government we must do more to engage the most diverse generation in our nation’s history. Our future as a state, and, more importantly, as a country, requires Millennials to engage with government and participate in our democratic process. But this isn't going to happen if our rhetoric continues to patronize them or if our institutions continue to marginalize their ideas and concerns. We’re not asking for anything to be handed to us, we’re asking to be afforded the same respect as any other person.

It's time to rethink how our political system listens to and engages with Millennials. This will require new, creative approaches to civic engagement and at a minimum must start with a commitment to rebuild public trust in our civic institutions. It's going to take time, perseverance, and empathy to get Millennials to trust in a system that has thus far operated without them.

While I was the first Millennial elected to the Legislature I am no longer alone. I’m now proudly joined by nine Millennials in the Assembly and one in the Senate. We are representative of this diverse generation and I for one am committed to crafting a more accessible, attentive, and respectful government that responds to our generation’s needs.

To that end, my colleagues and I have formed the California Millennial Caucus to encourage more Millennial involvement by listening to their concerns, starting a dialogue between our generation and our Legislature, and finding workable solutions to our toughest challenges. The Millennial Caucus’s primary goal is to learn from and engage with Millennials on a personal level and to use those conversations to craft policies that better address the problems facing our generation.

In the words of the youngest elected president in our nation’s history, John F. Kennedy, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” Our state cannot afford to miss out on all that our generation has to offer.

Ian C. Calderon is Majority Leader of the California State Assembly and represents the 57th Assembly District. He was appointed Majority Leader at age 30, and is the youngest Majority Leader in the history of the state of California.