Tomorrow is Election Day – my first and the first for many young voters like myself. I’m very excited and I’m sure the voting lines in the Union will be as long as they were for the primaries this year. Although Millennials now make up as great a share of the electorate as Baby Boomers, youth voter turnout rates are far below that for any other age group and have been as such for years.
Representative democracy is great in that it allows people to express their will without involving themselves in politics full-time. But the unfortunate reality is that the American political system only represents the voices of those who participate. If you don’t participate, someone else will. And don’t think that someone else has your best interests in mind.
There are many examples of issues for which increased political participation by youth would have driven the national agenda in a different direction from what actually came to be. As a result, the politics we see in the media and experience in our lives isn’t the politics of America; it’s the politics of a cohort of citizens that is overrepresented by older individuals and underrepresented by younger individuals.
I’ll preface these examples by saying my personal political beliefs will come through. But this is not to say that there are certain opinions young voters should hold and express. Rather, I am providing examples for which the national political agenda does not accurately reflect the needs of the population as a whole as it underrepresents the views of young Americans.
The issue of Social Security and other entitlement programs is a contentious issue for many. The Social Security Administration (SSA) oversees a number of social welfare and entitlement programs. Programs administered by the SSA including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicare, and Medicaid account for about half of the federal budget. But the major problem we’re facing today isn’t the size of Social Security but its replenishment. The taxes that feed into the Social Security reserves of $2.8 trillion are expected to exceed total cost until 2019. But Social Security payments will exceed the taxes coming in until 2034 when the reserves are expected to run dry. Millennials won’t be age-eligible for Social Security until well after 2034 and will therefore be forced to pay into a system that will never benefit them.
The original Social Security Act was passed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt to provide financial help for individuals such as the disabled and elderly who are unable to provide for themselves. As such, it’s clear that Social Security is a very important program and should not be abandoned. However, it must be restructured. Unfortunately, much of the national discussion regarding such programs concerns cutting or expanding Social Security. Many Washington politicians and a large proportion of the electorate is close to or older than the age of eligibility for Social Security and can afford to discuss such matters. But the youth of America can’t afford to sit idly while our politicians run Social Security into the ground. There is an inherent disconnect between the young and the old regarding the issue of Social Security that makes it imperative that American youth express their views.
But it’s not only issues that directly divide young and old that demonstrate the importance of youth political participation. Oftentimes the youth of a nation disagree with older individuals regarding the path a country should take; but political apathy among youth allows the older individuals to set the agenda which the youth must then contend with when they’re gone. A very notable example occurred recently in the United Kingdom (UK). This past summer, the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU) in a national referendum dubbed “Brexit.” The vote was close but it wasn’t close among young voters. According to most estimates, an overwhelming majority – roughly three-quarters – of individuals within the 18-24 age group voted to remain in the EU. Voter turnout, though higher than expected, was low among this age group. It’s very likely that a greater voter turnout among young voters would have caused the referendum to swing the other way. British voters forced upon their youth an issue they didn’t want. What remains to be seen is what will happen to the UK in the wake of Brexit.
The EU is an economic and political union that facilitates easy immigration and trade, allowing for a single market between member nations. Thus, Brexit will likely impose trade barriers that may benefit some local industries in the UK but will lead to increased prices and reduced business activity. Corporations will be compelled to do business in nations within the EU where trade is easier and the general economic climate is more fluid. Although the youth of the UK did not vote in great enough numbers to swing the vote, it is ultimately they who must shoulder the responsibility of dealing with the consequences of Brexit. This meme captures the idea as well as anyone.
We are the youth in an old man’s world. It’s frustrating to be a civically active youth in America. I can personally say it’s easy to feel disrespected or disregarded by older people. We are represented by politicians much older than us. And when they attempt to speak to our concerns, their words can feel hollow as if they are only interested in our votes and not our wellbeing. It’s difficult for American youth to express our political views in a meaningful way. But if we don’t speak, we will never be heard. The American political system has to do a better job of representing young people. And no one is going to effect that change but ourselves.