Millennials Taking Power

The four largest states in America are:

California 38,332,521
Texas 26,448,193
Collegia 20,000,000
New York 19,651,127

Never heard of Collegia? Perhaps that's because it's not an ordinary state.

On the eve of World War II, the number of young Americans attending college campuses was a little over one million. By 1968, when I was a junior at Harvard College, the number had exploded to almost seven million. But that's nothing compared to the population of the state of Collegia now. Today it's over twenty million.

But unlike other states, America's third largest "state" has no representatives in Congress. Consequently, Collegia represents a golden opportunity for mobilizing Millennial Power. This population is heavily concentrated in well-defined college towns. There are unprecedentedly effective social media channels by which they can organize. They are focused on learning. Perhaps most important of all, they are intimately connected, culturally and politically, to other non-student Millennials -- sixty million of them.

This enormous segment of the American electorate is yearning to be heard because they feel ripped off. Here's why:

  • Millennials are facing a contracting economy with limited job opportunities.
  • They are being forced into debt (over $1 trillion in student loans).
  • Their inheritance is being squandered by two political parties whose focus is short-term victory, not long-term fiscal health.
  • Except for rally-and-run visits by candidates during election years, they are largely ignored by the political elites who value money and power.

Millennials like David Burstein, founder of Run for America, can tell that neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties courting their votes are taking them seriously enough. Many of them see through the partisan posturing and are hungry for genuine, meaningful engagements with the issues of our time.

Millennials are "on a precipice," says Burstein. "We have the greatest potential political power," he says, "but we also have the most to lose. While the rest of the country has been galvanized by partisanship, our generation needs to be galvanized by our desire for solutions. Our collective voices can disrupt and change our failing system--and we can't allow this opportunity to pass us by."

Ever since World War II, the potential Power of the Millennials, has steadily increased. But since the 1960s, when the young demographic directly challenged the political power structure, the citizens of Collegia have been effectively intimidated into obedience by economic uncertainty and fears of terrorism.

Fortunately, there are scores of emerging initiatives that are working to fill this gap -- Action for America, Youth for National Change, Run for America, Millennial Action Project, Young Invincibles, Nexus Youth Summit, Something to Consider, GenerationNet, 250Y -- just to name a few. Although remarkably diverse, they share a Steve Jobs-style desire to innovate democracy.

"Our generation is just less willing to line up with whatever party platform they lean towards," says Erik Fogg, the co-author of Wedged, a compelling millennial manifesto. "Instead, we're having these very real, intense conversations about policy, economics, justice. We've been ignored by the parties for so long that we're just forging our own way now. There's a growing sense that we're part of a civic Silicon Valley for renewing politics."

One of the initiatives that could bring together this "civic Silicon Valley" is America2026 which will convene a representative group of next generation leaders in 2016 to do what Congress evidently will not: put forth pragmatic and future-focused solutions that move our country forward.

If the delegates to this "new American congress" can resolve their surface differences and advocate a deeper and more coherent set of values for America's future, it could mark a turning point in our nation's history. For the first time, young Americans as a group could have a cohesive political voice on public policy.

"We intend to lay out a vision and series of goals for our country over the next decade, says Laquan Austion," executive director of Action for America. "We will then work together through a new political movement to bring them into reality. With congress gridlocked in action, we believe our time to lead is now."

This would greatly benefit not only the Millennials, but America's future. If the young allow themselves to be isolated and divided by the current crop of candidates vying for domination, their power will be decimated. Instead of challenging the orthodoxies of the old, as Thomas Jefferson hoped, they will be cannibalized by polarized voices on the Left and Right. Instead of injecting a new stream of ideas and values that cut through the freeze-dried attitudes of their elders, they will simply be inducted into the current dysfunction.

"Today, young people see an unresponsive and inefficient set of political institutions and opt out of our democracy," says 250Y founder Sean Long, who is creating a pathway for young Americans to solve big problems alongside their elected leaders. "The movement for a renewed democracy will only be successful if it speaks to the virtues of young people, who are fiercely independent, drawn to community service, and willing to tackle tough problems."

As someone twice their age, deeply concerned about the state of American politics, I am profoundly heartened by the promise of Millennial Power. If these initiatives collaborate effectively, they will soon become a voice that awakens a nation.

Mark Gerzon, who chronicled the Sixties Generation in his book The Whole World Is Watching, is the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.