A Generation's Time to Lead

As Barack Obama stood in the congressional chamber on Tuesday to deliver his State of the Union address, he looked out at a room that housed one of the most diverse Congresses in history, with record numbers of women and minorities, the first bisexual member of Congress, the first openly gay senator, and two African-American senators among many other firsts. However, there is one measure by which the 113th Congress ranks among the least diverse in history: age. The average age in the House is 57 and in the Senate it is 62, both among the highest they have ever been.

This might not be so troubling if the issues currently under debate in Washington were not so essential to the future of the Millennial generation which numbers more than 80 million, making it the largest generation in history. After years of kicking the can down the road on everything from fiscal reform to the environment to immigration, these major issues of our time are coming to a head. The outcomes will affect younger Americans more than any other demographic slice. While older politicians often speak in stentorian words about the impact of various policies on their "children and grandchildren," the fact is that these conversations, Millennials don't have enough representation in Congress to have a real seat at the table. Talking about our future without having any of us at the forefront of the discussion should be seen for what it is -- as appalling as last summer's Congressional hearing about birth control, which featured no women.

Although an American citizen only needs to be 25 in order to serve in the House, we haven't had a 25-year-old congressman since 1975. And since 2009, the average age of the youngest Senator has hovered around 40, although the minimum age requirement in that chamber is 30. In the earliest days of our country, young people were at the forefront of our politics. After all, Thomas Jefferson was only 33 when he architected the Declaration of Independence. But today, there is just one member of Congress under the age of 30.

Despite our under-representation in Congress, Millennials have real political muscle. We make up 21.3 percent of all eligible voters and in the past two presidential election cycles, young voters played a decisive role in handing Barack Obama his 2008 primary victory, and two general election wins. And it was the shifting attitudes of Millennials that helped drive President Obama's change of heart on gay marriage in May of last year.

Our generation has truly made a mark. We've created powerful technologies that have connected people all over the world. We've built some of the largest new businesses in America. We've played a key role in pushing businesses to become more socially responsible through our consumer and user power. We've been through half our lifetimes as a period of America at war. We've been through the worst economic crises in 70 years and the highest youth unemployment rates. We've seen humanity at its worst in Columbine, on Sept. 11, and still more recent tragedies. We've responded to all these events by becoming a generation of pragmatic idealists who believe that we have both the opportunity and the obligation to leave the world in better shape than we found it.

So why is there so little Millennial representation in Congress? The toxic force of big money which contaminates our national politics overall, is surely at play. If you are a 26-year-old thinking about running for Congress, you are immediately hit with the daunting task of raising millions of dollars to run your campaign. But looming even larger, is the simple fact that the best and brightest in this generation -- who our country so desperately needs -- have prematurely decided that they can have more impact outside of elected office.

I would posit that if Ted Kennedy or Jack Kemp were coming up in the world today, they would not have run for office. They would have viewed our contemporary politics as too partisan and too broken to get anything done. They would have become social entrepreneurs organizing for the causes they championed like education and lifting Americans out of poverty. We were fortunate that those giants did go into politics, but at this very moment the next great generation of legislators is passing us by and we don't even realize it.

Millennials have found new ways to have tremendous impact in the business world and in a robust social entrepreneurship sector that didn't exist a generation ago, but ultimately, the vibrancy and fate of our country lies in the political system. So it's time for Millennials to run and it's time for this generation to lead. If enough of us answer this call, we just might be able to change the very things we find so frustrating about our political system. This generation may be the last best hope to fix our broken political system. We can't let that pass us by.

David D. Burstein is the author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World. He is also the founder and executive director of the youth voter engagement organization Generation18 and director of the documentary films, 18 in'08 and Up to Us about young voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections. A contributor to Fast Company, Burstein has appeared as a commentator on youth and politics for a range of publications and media outlets, including CNN, ABC, NPR, the New York Times, USA Today, the Boston Globe, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. More at www.fastfuturebook.com