Every Election Day for the last few years, I’ve sent my undergrad students out to polling places around Manhattan to report a “vox-pop” survey, asking local residents why they voted for various candidates. The assignment is part of a class called “Covering Gen Y” where journalism undergrads study and write about millennial issues.
After the assignment, we always discuss the students’ own attitudes towards politics, and in a word, it’s negative. My informal class poll was reflected in a national survey released this week by the Harvard Institute of Politics.
The 25th annual survey of political opinions of 18 to 25 year olds found deep cynicism toward the political process. That attitude keeps millenials away from polling places as less than a quarter planned to vote in mid-term elections this November. The Harvard poll also found that millenials think elected official don’t share their priorities and seem motivated by selfish reasons.
Those results echoed the class discussions. The attitude of the students can be summed up as “What’s the point of politics? Nothing is ever going to change.” I asked if any student would consider running for public office and the class laughed. “Why would I want to be a cog in a political machine?” said one student.
Their disillusionment with politics reflects their attitude toward institutions in general. While the Harvard survey found trust in government, military, the president and the Supreme Court at a five-year low, my students were distrustful across the board. Many saw their parents “downsized” from jobs where they had worked decades so they did not trust the business world. The students themselves, after years of working hard to get into a competitive school, even felt let down by higher education. Where were the jobs they were told that college guaranteed?
Despite the gloom, the students were still optimistic about their future, and that their drive and motivate would propel them. The Harvard poll found that more than 40 percent believe they will do better financially than their parents. In class we had discussed the idea that parents provide a scaffolding of support as their children grown and eventually replace that structure with a safety net. Most of the students—not all—agreed that parents were the one “institution” they had faith in.