With membership in both major political parties in freefall, it should come as no surprise that Dems and Republicans are trying desperately to get the attention of millennials, America’s 82-million strong contingent of mostly 20-somethings. But all the shiny bells, whistles and “we get you” come-ons don’t seem to be doing much good. Millennials remain the prettiest girl not at the party.
The question is why?
The parties toss small fortunes at consultants and pollsters every day trying to answer that question, but Assemblymember Matt Dababneh — who, at 34-years-old is one of the youngest lawmakers in the California Legislature — has some personal insight.
“Right now, too many young people don’t see government as being relevant to their lives,” Dababneh says. He believes there is good reason for that. Even young lawmakers like him see the world through very different eyes than do their even-younger constituents.
“Look at the lifestyle many millennials gravitate toward,” he says. “They want flexibility, whereas people a little older, myself included, want stability. I wanted to own a home by a certain age because to me that was the biggest asset I’d have for long-term security and immediate financial planning. But a lot of my younger constituents have a different outlook. They want more public transportation, more mixed-use housing. They don’t necessarily want to own a car.”
But millennials also share some desires with baby boomers and generation X-ers. Most notably, they too want the same opportunities to use their education to craft a career of their own choosing. But while millennials are the most educated generation in history, the exploding cost of a college degree has also made them the most indebted.
“It is one of the main reasons I ran for office,” he says, noting that years of budget cuts, enrollment caps and reduced class offerings in the California State University and University of California systems have left students struggling to even enter a 4-year school, then struggling to pay off exorbitant student loan debt. Many have shifted their focus to community colleges, only to find a similar situation.
“I have a number of people on my staff who tell me they’re paying $700 dollars a month on their student loans from going to a public school,” Dababneh continues. “Students are delaying their career path, putting off buying homes, not purchasing cars, not having kids and not getting married. Maybe they want to engage in public service or go into teaching, but they can’t afford those professions and pay the student loan debt back. Something is wrong really wrong here.”
Some of that delay is also related to a job market that is still much harder on young adults than on the rest of the workforce. According to a recent study by Generation Opportunity, a national, nonpartisan, youth advocacy organization, millennial unemployment for May was at 13.6 percent, compared to 5.5 percent for the nation and 6.3 percent in California.
It is understandably hard for older lawmakers to fully grasp how tough it is for 20-somethings right now. But Dababneh says he and his colleagues are working to solve issues that impact millennial lives the most, like education: reducing fees, preventing tuition hikes, increasing resources that help students graduate in a timely manner. Moreover, he adds, lawmakers have to listen better to what their younger constituents have to say.
“I go to a lot of events — Concerts in the Park, local farmers markets, high schools, town halls and community colleges — just so I can hear firsthand what is really impacting people,” he says. “What are the issues that, as a young family or student, you want to see changed or see someone address? How can we make government more relevant to you?”
If any of his colleagues need convincing, they might look at his example.
“I won my first race by 30 votes,” he says. “I can tell you that if I hadn’t gone to young people and to a lot of nontraditional voters from communities that don’t traditionally vote at the highest levels, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
For more on Assemblyman Dababneh, check back next week for Rich Ehisen’s July article, “Governing in the Digital Age,” in which the two talk tech and financial literacy. Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll email you when it’s available online.