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John W. McCarthy Headshot

Millennials Will Stay Home and It's Our Fault

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There has been an awful lot of conversation this election cycle about "the youth vote." Traditional wisdom suggests that young people will head to the polls for President Obama, others suggest widening margins for Governor Romney. All of these questions miss the real problem at hand: what if young people just don't show up? Even worse -- what if it's our fault?

Think about it -- if you go to any local political organization they are struggling to get more young people engaged. Ask any elected official how many young people showed up to their last town hall -- you'll be shocked to hear how low the numbers are. Campaign after campaign lacks concentrated efforts to target young people on the same scale as ethnic or gender groups. This is a serious misstep for anyone looking to seriously organize young people and a massive threat to our democratic system.

A recent Gallup Poll suggested that only 58 percent of voters between the ages of 18-29 say they will "definitely vote." This is a sharp downturn from the 2004 numbers where 81 percent of young Americans said they'd be pulling the November-lever. The youth vote is continuously described as flakey and at first glance these numbers might simply confirm these assumptions. It's not that millennial generation is flakey; it's that many of them are under-equipped to participate in the political process.

In these tough economic times civic education programs such as social studies, current event classes and mock-elections are some of the first things to be cut around budget season. Studies continue to show that these programs are being phased out at a rapid speed and that nothing is taking their place. While a few school districts can still afford to keep these programs running now more than ever we need to think about the school districts that have let them go.

The current political climate in the United States has a great divide between the privileged-engaged and the under-served disenfranchised. Put more simply: there is a clear difference in engagement between students who have schools that can afford or prioritize civic education opportunities and those that do not. Even worse, this means we are systematically alienating young people who live on the margins of society. Anyone who subscribes to the core principals of democracy should see this divide as an immediate warning signal of what is to come.

Who could benefit more from a well-represented society than the most vulnerable? Political involvement comes with certain benefits such as access to your representatives, an understanding of legislative proceedings, the ability to navigate the often cumbersome channels of bureaucracy and the simple knowledge of who to call when something is wrong. It's no wonder that the economically-underprivileged show a continual distrust for the government: their problems aren't being solved because they don't know how to solve them.

In 2012 I'd suggest we take action and change the political rhetoric. Now more than ever we need to be asking serious questions of our candidates regarding service learning requirements and civic engagement services. We often fail to acknowledge that many of our national political problems could be resolved with investments in civic education. Special interests would have much less influence if we had a one-hundred percent voter turn-out. Washington would certainly be a more amicable place if people followed and kept track of those representing them. We have the opportunity to give a generation of leaders the skills they need to lead -- the question is: will we do it?