Millennials may soon surpass Baby Boomers as the largest generational voting bloc, but myriad surveys and reports suggest that Gen Y isn’t all that interested in or particularly engaged with politics these days, even as the presidential primary season heats up. While the so-called youth vote played a deciding role in electing and re-electing President Barak Obama in 2008 and 2012, respectively, Millennials’ enthusiasm for political change seems to have waned in recent years, with less than a quarter of them going to the mid-term polls in 2014.
Nowadays, Millennial’s interest in government and politics is significantly lower compared to older generations. In a survey conducted by Pew Research, Gen Y respondents were asked to choose from a list of nine topics of interest, and only 26% of Millennials selected government and politics among the top three topics that they were most interested in, compared to 34% of Gen Xers and and 45% of Baby Boomers. Indeed, Gen Y’s slipping engagement with and lack of awareness of politics could be problematic for presidential hopefuls looking to grab Millennials’ attention over the next year and a half.
But scratch beneath the surface of Millennials’ seeming apathy toward government and the political process, and it becomes clear that Gen Y voters have strong political convictions and affiliations, but they choose to share their ideas and opinions as well as receive their political news through different channels than their parents and grandparents.
Because of Gen Y’s ethnic and economic diversity, coupled with their greater rates of higher education, social justice issues such as equality and human rights top Millennials’ list of concerns that they believe government policies can help to affect, which has led the group to “trend blue” over the past few election cycles. And although an overwhelming majority of likely Millennial voters picked Democratic presidential candidates over Republican candidates in a survey conducted by The Reason Foundation (with Hillary Clinton garnering 53% of Millennial respondents’ “yes vote”), another Clinton presidency isn’t necessarily a sure bet among Gen Y voters, and Democrats will still need to work to gain the trust and attention of Millennials.
Gen Y’s general mistrust of political leaders and a government system that they perceive favors the rich and powerful over the have-nots is reflected in Millennials’ general mistrust of traditional political news outlets such as network television and mainstream newspapers. While it’s not uncommon for 18-to-29 year olds to historically be uninterested in political news, what makes Gen Y different from previous generations is that this group gathers the majority of its political news from online news sources such as Google News and BuzzFeed or from satirical news sources such as “The Daily Show” or The Onion, a marked difference from Baby Boomers and to some extent Gen Xers, who largely continue to consume political news the old-fashioned way.
Beyond consuming news, though, Millennials aren’t just looking to hear from political leaders, they have an expectation to be heard themselves, demanding two-way conversations with candidates and leaders that would have been difficult or impossible in the past. With current national conversations about systemic racism, gun violence, and immigration reform at center stage, Gen Y-initiated hashtags such as #WhatWeNeed2016 are calling for grassroots change.
Lastly, Millennials are challenging the outdated, decidedly un-technological voter registration process by mobilizing to fix voter ID laws than restrict the use of student IDs and working to streamline an antiquated process that often penalizes this mobile generation.
While the 2016 presidential election is more than a year away, energizing the Millennial vote will be even more critical than in 2008, if candidates will take the time to listen to this powerful constituency.