The Millennials Have Arrived in Congress

You Won’t Recognize America in Five Years

millennials

If you were asked to predict the hot topic in Congress five years from now what would you say? Healthcare? Tax policy? Immigration?

Try the student loan crisis — and not just because the current debt total of $1.45 trillion is a drag on the economy. It’s because a growing number of the very people saddled with that enormous load will be addressing it on the Senate and House floors — as your elected officials.

The millennials have arrived in Congress and they’re bringing their priorities.

At 92 million strong, millennials1 are the largest segment of the U.S. population, having surpassed the mighty baby boomers early last year. In 2015, they became the largest age group in the U.S. labor force. Today one of every three workers in America is a millennial.

Millennials have been making a name for themselves far longer of course. Their attitudes, expectations and lifestyle choices have disrupted almost every walk of American life. From culture to commerce, from the home front to the workplace, they have upended the old way of doing things and are dictating the new.

Now it’s Congress’ turn. To be sure, millennials make up a small fraction of the 115th Congress (sworn in January 2017). But their numbers grow with each election. And when you factor in the powerful influence of Congressional staffs, 63 percent of whom are under the age of 30, it’s clear the laws of the land are in the hands of a new generational force.

“Not since the baby boomers has a generation made such an enormous impact on society,” says Patrick Murphy, 34, a former Democratic representative from Florida (2013-2017), who last year became the first millennial to run for the United States Senate.

Understanding Traits and Behavior

Lobbyists and others looking to shape policy in Washington will need to understand how to appeal to the millennial mindset and the group’s behavioral traits.

Bombarded by advertising from an early age, millennials tend to be skeptical consumers who rely on peer input in their decision-making. They get their news not from traditional sources such as print publications or TV, but from friends and through social networks like Facebook.

Though exposed to varying viewpoints through social media, millennials tend to read stories that support their own ideals. However, research shows that 73 percent of those exposed to diverse opinions on social media will click to learn more, indicating that they pay attention to messaging.

As digital natives, millennials live on their mobile devices, dictate the content they consume and expect the speed and convenience associated with it to be present at all times. That in turn has revolutionized the way we shop, communicate and consume entertainment. Witness the slow fade of brick-and-mortar shopping in favor of e-commerce. Or the fragmentation of network TV in favor of streaming services like Netflix. Or the upheaval of the hotel industry by Airbnb or vacation rental site VRBO.

Economic Issues Weigh Heavily

The historic student debt is one of the most pressing economic issues facing the millennial generation. Unable to find good-paying jobs in their majors and restricted from declaring bankruptcy to get out from under student loan debt, millennials have diminished purchasing power.

Combine that phenomenon with financial difficulties common to Americans of all generations — wage stagnation and lack of access to credit — and the shaky financial circumstances millennials find themselves in is having ripple effects across the entire economy.

Millennials are postponing major life decisions associated with the American Dream, such as marriage, but especially home-buying. Only about 21 percent of people in their 20s owned a home in 2016, down from 32 percent in 2007. Where do they live instead? With mom and/or dad. Pew Research reported last year that living at home with parents was the most common housing arrangement for those between the ages of 18 and 34. That means millennials are buying fewer durable goods and avoiding expenses such as auto and homeowners’ insurance.

As for their parents, the spending they might have done in their golden years declines by necessity as they support their adult children. That could also lead to dipping into personal savings. Add the fact that their children are paying down debt at the expense of contributing to 401(k) plans, and the overall personal saving rate in the U.S. is impacted.

Politics Lean Left and Right

Research shows that millennials resist political party labels. Yet they tend to support distinct positions that typically align with both parties. They lean left on social issues espoused by the Democratic Party such as gay marriage, legalization of marijuana and immigration reform. They lean right on Republican economic issues, including shrinking the size of government and tax policies that help them dig out from under their debt burden.

To many, this suggests a Libertarian viewpoint. What does that mean for future elections? We’ll see. But first Congressional candidates will have to get their fellow millennials into the voting booths. In the 2016 presidential election, only 49.4 percent of eligible millennial voters showed up to pull the lever. (Contrast that with 68.7 percent of baby boomers who voted.)

Both Parties Reach Out

Recognizing the impact millennials have on elections and policy, both the Republican and Democratic parties are aggressively seeking to get out in front of the trend.

The Democrats have formed the Future Forum caucus, composed of 28 millennial and millennial-minded members of the House Democratic caucus, and Chaired by Congressman Eric Swalwell (CA). Swalwell assumed office in 2013 at age 33 after defeating one of the longest serving Members of Congress, Pete Stark (CA). The caucus has a sister organization, the Future Forum Foundation, that is working to better understand and connect with millennials. Patrick Murphy is the Foundation's chair.

Likewise, the House Republican Policy Committee, an advisory panel to House Republicans, established a millennial task force chaired by Congresswoman Elise M. Stefanik (NY), the youngest member of the House (born 1984). Tasked with examining ways the GOP can better understand and connect with millennials, the group issued a report in February detailing policy solutions to reach the coveted voting block.

Both parties have their work cut out for them. “We don't want to merely appeal to the millennial mindset, we want to understand and serve a generation with unique values and a passion for change,” says Murphy. “Their effect on the future is already well underway.”

Including in Congress.

NOTE: 1No precise definition exists of the birth range of the Millennial generation, though 1980 through 2000 covers common spans.
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