This might be the most surprising characteristic of the Millennial Generation, but it is true that Millennials are actually very politically engaged. We are voting in higher numbers, we feel that politics are important and relevant, and we want to see a larger government role.
In almost every election since we began voting in 2000, the percentage of the youth vote has increased. For all general election years—2000, 2004 and 2008—the overall percentage of young people who voted increased from the previous general election year. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), from 2000 to 2004 the youth vote (18-to-29-year-olds) percentage increased by 7 percent, and from 2004 to 2008 it increased between 4 and 5 percent. Now, it must be noted that Millennials didn’t make up the entire youth vote during these election years. In 2004 about half were Millennials, but in 2008 about four-fifths were. However, the percentage of 18-to-24-year-olds who voted in the 2004 election was 11 points higher than in 2000, and this age group was almost exclusively made up of Millennials in 2004. In addition, the percentage of young people voting in the 2006 midterm election increased from the 2002 midterms, only by a modest 3 points but this was still higher than any other age group. And remember, one of the characteristics of a Civic generation is rising voter turnout (another is straight-ticket voting, and Millennials have favored the Democrats in every single election we have participated in).
However, in the 2010 midterms there was a two percentage point drop from 2006, which is likely because young people were less motivated to vote in this election, for many reasons. But even so, the slight drop-off was less than expected. Also, young people have traditionally had a very low turnout rate in mid-term elections, so this isn’t something that started with Millennials. It appears that young people feel that the mid-term elections aren’t as important as the general elections, and this is an attitude that needs to change. The 2012 election also saw a drop in the youth voter turnout, going from 51 percent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2012. This is a fairly significant drop, and it is likely reflective of the disappointment young people feel towards Obama and the nasty partisanship that has stalled Washington.
But despite the ineffective government we have right now, Millennials are more likely than other generations to advocate a larger government role. According to the 2008 National Election Survey (NES), 66 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds polled supported increased government services—higher than other age cohorts—and 74 percent of respondents choose the statement, “there are more things that government should be doing,” over “the less the government the better.” Furthermore, when asked by the NES whether we need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems or whether the free market can handle these problems without government interference, 78 percent of Millennials preferred the strong government option. And 2008 exit polls found that 69 percent of young voters said that government should be doing more to solve problems as opposed to government is doing too many things best left to businesses and individuals. Similarly, a 2010, Pew Research Center survey found that when Millennials were asked which they would prefer, a smaller government providing fewer services or a larger government providing more services, 67 percent of Millennials choose a larger government with more services.
However, even though Millennials favor a larger government role, we actually have fairly negative views of our current government. But keep in mind that the cynicism we have toward our government is not necessarily based on a deep-seated dislike of politics. Instead, it is more a reflection of the failures of current political institutions, which have been largely perpetuated by ineffective political leadership. A May, 2010 Harvard IOP survey reported that 56 percent of respondents agreed that “elected officials seemed to be motivated by selfish reasons,” and 54 percent agreed that “elected officials don’t seem to have the same priorities that I have.” Also, a 2007 Pew Values Survey found that 76 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds polled believed that elected officials lose touch with citizens. Even more interesting is the findings from the 2007 Greenberg Millennials Study which revealed that 93 percent of Millennials agreed with the statement, “Government is dominated by special interests and lobbyists, who give millions of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians, who in turn give even more back to those special interests, while the rest of us are left holding the bag,” with 73 percent saying this situation is either “a crisis that our country must address immediately” or a major problem.
My guess is that Millennials want to see a larger, yet reformed government role. We don’t want the inefficient and largely ineffective government we have today resulting from historic levels of partisanship in Washington. We know our government can do better than this (with a 5 percent approval rating they really can’t do much worse), and throughout our lifetime we will build up a stronger government and stronger institutions, as is typical during a civic realignment. Our political engagement is likely to strengthen as we age (right now, about two-thirds of Millennials are eligible to vote), and that will, in turn, strengthen our country.