Our popular perception of millennials is wrong, and it's hurting the kinds of policies we develop to help them.
Millennials are now the nation's largest voting demographic. It should come as no surprise that issues they prioritize are starting to move to the forefront of our national political conservation. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) ran a surprisingly successful campaign for the presidency based largely on his support among millennials. Meanwhile, the incumbent President and Congress have low levels of support among this group. We should therefore wonder why this group has yet to fully realize its electoral potential. I have a theory: public policy has focused on only a small percentage of millennials, and we need to do a better job of advocating on behalf of the rest.
Conversations about "pro-millennial" policies typically focus on a certain kind of millennial. This millennial either has, or is pursuing, a college degree. She likely lives in a metropolitan area, or intends to move to one after graduation. She has more college debt than her parents imagined was possible when she was born. She is more likely than the average American to self-identify as a Democrat. She's probably a renter, rather than a homeowner, and wishes her rent were cheaper. She probably does not own a car, and therefore depends on a reliable public transportation system.
This type of millennial has a particular kind of lived experience that suggests she supports a slate of public policies that will sound familiar. She wants college debt relief, or at least reform so that future students won't be in debt forever. She wants affordable housing options close to her job, or potential jobs, likely in or near a major city. Finally, she wants an affordable and reliable means of commuting to work.
The kinds of policies supported by the individual described above (i.e. college tuition reform, efficient urban planning) are well represented by the nation's leading millennial advocacy organizations. The problem is that these policies reflect the lived experience of only a minority of millennials. Despite being the most educated generation to-date, millennials with college degrees do not constitute a majority of their peers. Only 34 percent of millennials hold a Bachelor's or advanced degree. Only about a quarter of millennials live in urban neighborhoods, and that number has actually declined since 2000. A whopping 80 percent of millennials own a car. You get the idea.
The popular perception of millennials that we see dominating media conversations in particular simply does not align with the experiences of most millennials. In fact, these narratives say more about their authors than their subjects. We therefore need to begin a broader conversation about what kinds of policies millennials want from their government. These issues are not likely to be glamorous, but they address the kinds of real bread-and-butter issues that will improve Americans' lives and present electoral advantages for politicians willing to support them.
As a city-dwelling and college-educated millennial myself, I cannot pretend to have all the answers. Nonetheless, I do offer one example that I hope provides a useful template for the kinds of policies that would truly help America's largest generation. In my opinion, we need to talk about housing reform a key issue for millennials.
Housing Reform as a Millennial Issue
The cost of housing is an important issue for millennials of all socioeconomic circumstances. While rental costs skyrocket in major cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, millennials elsewhere are also finding it harder to find an affordable place to live. With the average age of marriage and parenthood rising, many are understandably reluctant to commit to a decades-long mortgage when their life circumstances may change drastically in the interim. Many millennials also face huge student loan bills that make a mortgage seem daunting or impractical. The end result is that millennials are renting longer and at higher rates than the generations preceding them.
Unfortunately, the availability of good rental properties is an issue in all kinds of communities. Affordable rental units are scarce even in rural communities, where land is otherwise abundant and real estate costs are relatively low. This is understandable at the local level, where homeowners are fiercely protective of their neighborhoods and fear that nearby rental properties could harm home values. While there are government programs to promote low-income housing, there are comparatively fewer programs that promote the availability of rental units as a means unto itself. As a result, many millennials are living at home, or moving to larger cities in search of other opportunities.
It would be a good idea for millennial advocacy organizations to advocate for affordable and available rental housing in communities across the United States. Too often, entrenched developers and homeowner associations outmaneuver such efforts. There is simply no good reason this will change until clever advocates or politicians take up the cause. At the local level, this could mean pushing communities to use their residential zoning code in order to promote the development of rental units. At the state level, advocates should push legislatures to tie their lucrative community aid and grant programs to the availability of the same.
Millennials need not be the sole beneficiaries of such a policy. Increasingly, the availability of a young workforce is driving decisions about where the private sector creates jobs. Therefore, if communities want new investment, a strong economy, and a solid tax base, they need to be able to attract and retain young workers. It is in everyone's interest to ensure that millennials have access to the kind of housing options they're demanding.