By: Alec Vandenberg
In the wake of the jarring and gruesome Parkland High School massacre, survivors took to the streets, cable T.V., town halls and legislatures to advocate for change. They urged lawmakers and the rest of America to act before the death toll of students rises higher. The candlelit vigils of their classmates have sparked a national movement, with cross-county protests and walkouts that will culminate in the March for Our Lives on March 24th. As high school students, these activists prove that though many of them currently have no electoral power, their cause is anything but hopeless.
However, the question remains whether this movement will bring about greater millennial political participation, or whether this passion and activism will fade back into the apathy and disengagement that often defines our generation.
The March for Our Lives movement represents the greatest collective action amongst young people, not seen since the days of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when students expressed solidarity with the cause on more than 100 college campuses.
Perhaps to succeed, this cause must rise to the heights of the Civil Rights and free speech movements when, despite clashes of ideas and even fists, progress marched on and college students and young people rallied behind a collective ideal.
Yet even if we can agree on a collective ideal, such as reducing gun violence, recent polling reveals deep intra-generational divides between millenials themselves. Although 61% of young Americans support in stricter gun laws according to the Harvard Institute of Politics’ fall youth poll, a 2015 Gallup poll found that 18- to 29-year-olds lead the country in support of concealed carry laws and were less likely than older Americans to support a total ban on assault weapons.
Though these divisions on gun policy fail to manifest themselves to a large degree with the March for our Lives movement, even on issues which disproportionately affect Millennials that should unite them, such as the student debt crisis, the environment or DACA, little organization and activism rallies students and young adults to the streets or to the ballot box. Though 49.4 percent of Millennials voted in 2016, a three percent increase from 2012, our turnout still lags by double digit points to every other voting-eligible generation.
Even if Millennials do opt to participate in the political process, questions emerge surrounding how and with whom they engage. With thousands of lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, millennials and young people lack their own American Association of Retired Persons, union, interest group or any other means of collective advocacy to advance the various and pressing concerns facing us and future Americans. And with our generation overtaking the Baby Boomers as the largest living generation, our voices must only become louder.
Many issues stemming from difficulties of engagement flow back to the stark lack of Millennial representation in Congress, with only five Millennials, defined as Americans from the ages of 25 to 35, occupying seats in D.C. A Congress that reflected America’s generational makeup would be home to a whopping 97 millennial seats. If our pleas and concerns fall on deaf ears in the halls of our legislatures, it becomes imperative to not only show up to the ballot box, but also to be on the ballot.
Millennials: we must march for our lives, march for our loans, march for civil rights, and march for progress. We must march to Capitol Hill, but also to the polling station. The Parkland Massacre may serve as our wake up call to action, but when the media and legislators move on, we must continue to march, and refuse to hit snooze on engagement and activism. Our lives depend on it.