If you’re voting for the first time in 2016, presumably you’re thinking, “This is what I was missing out on?”
One candidate for president is a millionaire career politician who can’t seem to utter a truthful sentence if doing so would impede her insatiable political ambitions. The other is a billionaire narcissist who is channeling the most sinister impulses of a foregone era under the disingenuous auspices of “greatness.”
These are not our best role models for public service. And we wonder why so few young people are running for office.
It’s not just that two of our most visible arbiters of political leadership are deeply uninspiring, but that millennials, despite the good work of many public servants, have been given few reasons to believe that government is a place to get anything done.
Think about it.
This is a generation that has grown up in perpetual, unending war. In the past ten years, tensions around the globe have only intensified, countless travel advisory warnings making once-friendly countries too dangerous to accommodate a young person’s wanderlust. They’ve seen one government get us into wars, and another unable – or unwilling – to finish them.
Toward these efforts, they’ve also seen a government that has clamped down egregiously on their civil liberties – spying en masse, arbitrary data collection, attempts at regulating the Internet and monitoring their web use. Where they see technology as a tool for innovation and democracy, their government sees it as a hidden camera with which to follow their every move – while lying about it.
Millennials see a government that championed subprime mortgages and predatory lending, creating one of the biggest housing crashes in history. They see a government that aided and abetted a “too big to fail” banking industrial complex, creating one of the biggest economic recessions in history. And there’s nothing in place to stop either from happening again.
They’ve seen a government bloat and balloon, becoming so unwieldy that its bureaucracies can no longer efficiently service its citizens, from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the IRS to healthcare to the prison system.
They’ve seen corruption ignored and poverty prosecuted. Income inequality has expanded, the middle class has gotten poorer, and their high-priced educations have left many jobless and in debt.
Whereas previous youth generations might have appropriately been characterized as naïve and idealistic, this generation is anything but – they are wide awake, clear-eyed and skeptical.
You might think that all of this has set millennials up for failure. It’s quite a chaotic mess we’re handing off to the largest generation in history. But this is where the story gets good.
Despite all this muck – and perhaps very much because of it – millennials have responded by working around these broken systems and aging government infrastructure to become what I call the Efficiency Generation.
Where the government has failed to solve important and complicated problems, through technology, innovation, and endless creativity the Efficiency Generation has stepped in. From traffic to tourism, communication to the moving of goods and services, efficiency is the primary motivating focus of millennial innovators. Where Boomers and even Xers look to federal agencies and elected officials to fix something, millennials look to themselves.
To be sure, they are not roundly rejecting all government as bad. Most millennials, like most voters, understand the need for government, so long as it’s an efficient one. But the Efficiency Generation does not look to government as the answer. A whopping 83% have no faith in Congress, for example.
Colossal government failures and waste have created an unprecedented appetite for self-reliance among this generation, as well as a very healthy respect for capitalism and earning, which is perhaps why an unprecedented few are running for office. Why do in politics what one can do in the private sector, at half the cost and double the speed for ten times the profit?
Back to this election. What do the nominees have in common? Among many other surprising things, they have nothing to offer the Efficiency Generation. Both are promising to grow government in nearly every aspect, because fundamentally both still vigorously and blindly believe that government is the solution to every and any problem.
One has made no promises to shrink the size of government, make it leaner, or more efficient. This candidate has said nothing to make a millennial think she understands her value system. In fact, she’s been outright dismissive of the Efficiency Generation’s greatest achievements, namely the on-demand and share economy, criticizing innovations like Uber, Lyft and AirBnB for committing “wage theft.” Any political leader who doesn’t look at the on-demand and share economy as a solution, but instead a problem, simply doesn’t get it. In my opinion, this candidate will over-regulate and over-tax innovation to death.
On the other side, don’t let superficial business shtick fool you – just because one comes to politics from the private sector doesn’t mean he believes in limited government. He might not want to empower federal bureaucracies as gleefully as our candidate on the left does, but he makes up for that in his gleefulness to empower himself. He seems to think he can override the Constitution, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Geneva Convention and any other “obstacle” to get his desired outcome – the building of a wall, the banning of a religion, the reinstitution of torture, the theft of resources from sovereign nations. In this candidate’s authoritarian America, the Efficiency Generation will be deported, banned, abused and squandered while he enjoys a trade war.
So was someone else the answer? There may have been a candidate or two on the right who understands and appreciates the Efficiency Generation more than those who stand elected, but this primary cycle apparently wasn’t going to accommodate that discussion.
At the millennial town hall I co-moderated at Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan put it this way:
“These days, with technology, you are used to customizing your everyday life. So why on earth would you want to support a governing philosophy that seeks to take away your right and ability to customize, individualize, or decide critical aspects of your life, like your health care or your education? You can’t say government is of the people when it is imposing its decisions on the people.”
Millennials deserve better. And the rest of us should demand it. This presidential election might be doomed, but over the next four and eight years, it’s incumbent upon the Efficiency Generation to populate the political space so that its voices and values are front and center.
One of my good friends, David Burstein, understands this. He launched Run for America to recruit young, talented millennials from the private sector to run for office. Not to grow the size of government, but explicitly to offer solutions. As he says, “Systems can help, but people solve problems.” Another project, called Action for America, is efforting the same.
There are other millennials currently in public service who are beating this drum. Cincinnati City Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld is a voice to watch, as is the 20-year-old mayor of Indian Head, MD, Brandon Paulin.
While public service and politics may look like discouraging places to apply one’s talents, we will not be a successful or productive nation without millennial participation in this process and their eye toward streamlining government systems. The Efficiency Generation may not have had anything to do with creating the problems of big government, but they are our only hope of solving them.