If you paid any attention to the way the mainstream media talks about young people — and I recommend you don’t — you’d think that we’re all a bunch of good-for-nothing layabouts. Take, for example, this article published last year in USA Today about a study examining the life goals of millennials. Here’s a choice excerpt: “Published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study finds Millennials (born 1982-2000) more civically and politically disengaged, more focused on materialistic values, and less concerned about helping the larger community than were GenX (born 1962-1981) and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to about 1961) at the same ages.” Great. This view of young people is annoying for about 6,000 different reasons. But, given some traditional measures of civic engagement, the Facebook generation is falling behind. Despite relatively high voter registration among young people, millennials tend not to vote in municipal elections.
The perfect case in point was September’s mayoral primary election here in Boston. Voter turnout in youth-dominated parts of the city — like Allston and Brighton — was shockingly low: One precinct in Brighton showed just 11 percent voter turnout, and the average across all of Ward 21, which covers most of the neighborhood, was a dismal 13 percent. Given how much we have invested, both emotionally and financially, in the city of Boston, this is unacceptable. It’s time that we millennials took some of our passion, the same stuff which propelled Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and made immigrant rights and gay marriage the crucial civil rights issues of our time, and applied it to municipal politics.
Now for some good news: 1) you don’t have to deal with anymore of my paternalistic bullshit in this article, and 2) A large part of the problem we face is systemic. Most people active in civic life have a means for direct interaction with municipal government, like having a kid in the public school system. Young people, by and large, don’t have these sorts of avenues available to them.
“People want to get involved, but there aren’t a lot of venues to get involved with that aren’t political,” says Malia Lazu, the executive director of the Future Boston Alliance, a group that advocates for Boston’s artists and young people. She says that although this election has shown a refreshing amount of attention paid to youth issues in Boston, both candidates and the larger political machine have to reach out to millennials if they want to see more youth engagement in local politics. “It takes more than goodwill to turn out voters,” she says.
But blaming an entrenched political system will only get you so far and Lazu believes that young people need to start taking group action if they want their issues taken seriously. “It is really important for artists and young people to get involved,” she says. “Young people and artists have to start building that tradition.”
Great things can be accomplished if this happens. Some of the hot-button issues in this race are ones that will directly impact the lives of young people throughout this city. Issues such as extending the hours of the T, increasing the amount of liquor licenses available, and returning happy hour to the Hub have been topics for real discussion in this election — and believe it or not, all have faced opposition from entrenched civic groups afraid of change. Regardless of whether John Connolly or Marty Walsh wins the election, the new mayor will need to know he has support from large sections of society before he takes on intense local opposition over these issues, and we’re perfectly positioned to provide this leverage. A high voter turnout among young people — regardless of who they vote for — will show the mayor that the wants and needs of millennials must be taken seriously. The flip side is equally true. If few young people turn out on election day, the mayor will have no qualms about sacrificing reforms that millennials hold dear in the name of political expediency.
Young people only need to look back a few months to find an example of just how much power a long-dormant group can wield, given the right circumstances. Last July, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick passed a budget designed to greatly increase transportation funding in the state. A cornerstone of this budget was a 6.25-percent tax on computer and software services. Tech companies — who until now have had a reputation for remaining aloof from local politics — howled in protest. In a shocking backtrack, the state government repealed the law just two months after it was signed. Patrick even announced his retreat on Twitter in a nod to the newly-emboldened tech sector.
Young people in Boston can shape Boston politics in a similar way — if they vote in municipal elections.
“Boston is at a fork in the road and the incoming mayor has the opportunity to define our future. Whether you are an entrepreneur or a person starting your career the decisions the mayor and his team makes will directly impact the quality of opportunities that will exist for you here in Boston,” said Matt Lauzon, a Boston-based entrepreneur who founded Dunwello and Gemvara.com, via email. He’s absolutely right. Boston is in for an amazing journey, and if millennials want to go along for the ride, then we need to show that we care enough about this city to trudge down to the polls on election day (Nov. 5, in case you were wondering). If not, we’ll be spending the next four years complaining about having to pay $13 for a martini and how its impossible to get to Central Square on the weekend.
[Photo credit: Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff]