Over the past few years, the United States has witnessed an erosion of trust in our public institutions by our citizens. This mistrust is most readily apparent in my generation, the millennials. As the Harvard Institute of Politics pointed out after their March poll of young Americans, “18- to 29- year-olds’ trust in public institutions is at a five-year low — and their cynicism toward the political process has never been higher.”
While it is easy to dismiss my generation’s qualms with the political process, by not taking substantive action to better engage us and restore this faith, the United States is losing an immense amount of human capital from the public service sector, valuable ideas to make government more efficient and effective, and leaving a generation questioning the efficacy of our democratic process. Congress has the opportunity to fix this problem by backing House Joint Resolution 68 and supporting the creation of a Presidential Youth Council to give young people a seat at the table.
If anyone attributes the lack of youth engagement to the self-interest and narcissism of the “me, me, me” generation, they could not be farther from the truth. Millennials are no strangers to giving back: At our age, we are the most likely of all generations to be engaged in community service. Our propensity for community engagement comes from what we crave most — instant gratification. The advent of technology and ability to find an answer to almost any question instantaneously has led us to expect that same immediate responsiveness from our public institutions. When we volunteer, our impact is readily apparent. Whether it be bags of trash collected, money raised or people helped, it is easy to understand the impact of those efforts.
However, young people get no such satisfaction from the policy making process. The impacts of our efforts are not immediately apparent, and it often takes years of determination to see progress on the policies which we care most deeply about. As a result, an increasing number of young Americans believe that millennials do not have a say in the actions that our government takes. As our trust in the government continues to decline, we are more likely to work for nonprofits or socially-responsible ventures as a means of leaving a positive impact on society.
With our trend toward volunteerism and careers which provide us with immediately tangible results, perhaps a more suitable nickname for my generation is the “now, now, now” generation.
It is imperative that we reverse these trends, but without any formal outlet to advise the federal government on youth-related policies, millennials are attempting to participate in the enormously complex system of the United States federal government from the outside. And one must look no further than the Occupy Wall Street movement to see that attempting to change a system externally is wildly ineffective.
Of the existing federal advisory committees, not a single one of them specifically seeks to leverage the unique perspectives and creative ideas of young Americans. We have essentially been shut out of the public policy discussion with little recourse in influencing policy at the federal level. Millennials’ ability to offer input, be heard, and make change will help to alleviate our current disgruntlement.
The incorporation of our ideas through youth advisory councils at the local and state levels has been instrumental in ensuring that policies which affect us are more efficient and effective. For example, young people helped saved the city of Hampton, Virginia $100,000 after being consulted on a public-works project.
The National League of Cities has identified more than 400 youth councils which exist around the country to advise city councils, mayors, governors, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 Companies on youth-related policies. In addition, 13 members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, such as Reps. John B. Larson, D-Conn., and Ted Yoho, R-Fla., have recognized the importance of substantively engaging young people in the public policy process by creating youth councils of their own.
A bipartisan coalition of 37 lawmakers has co-sponsored HJ Res 68, in support of establishing a nonpartisan, privately funded Presidential Youth Council. It is time that more members of Congress, federal agencies such as the Department of Education, and President Barack Obama create youth councils of their own to give young Americans a formal means of offering input on federal policies.
By giving young Americans a seat at the table, the United States will not only see an increase in the efficiency and effectiveness of youth-related policies at the federal level, but our government will demonstrate that it can and will be responsive to the “now, now, now” generation.
Ross Seidman is the director of government relations for the Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council. Disclosure: Roll Call Editor-in-chief Christina Bellantoni serves as an advisory board member for the campaign.