Why don't young people vote?

It's not because they're lazy and or don't care or aren't being talked to

Two disconnected young non-voters

It looks like, for better or worse, Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee for president. This freaks me out for a whole host of reasons I will not bore you with in this particular newsletter, but I do want to highlight one big issue: The youth vote.

Bernie Sanders overwhelmingly won young voters, while Biden won older ones. The under-50/over-50 divide is incredibly stark, and Bernie’s support gets stronger the younger you get.

But younger voters were a small fraction of the total voting population. In Michigan, voters under 30 accounted for 16 percent of total votes cast. In South Carolina, they were just 11 percent.

Today, Millennials (who are 24-39) make up more or less the same share of the electorate as Baby Boomers, each just under 30 percent. Compared to Baby Boomers, who are about three-quarters white, Millennials are much more diverse and much more liberal. And Gen-Z voters (those 18-23) may still be a relatively tiny share of total eligible voters, but they are more diverse still. Millennials and Gen-Zers make up all American eligible and actual voters under the age of 40. So why are we having so little influence?

The answer, as you know, is that we don’t vote — or at least we don’t vote in nearly as significant of numbers as older Americans.

You’ll hear a lot of explanations for this: That Millennials (which has annoying become the catch-all term for “young”) are entitled, that we’re lazy, that we don’t care about politics, that we’re disengaged. Alternately, you’ll hear that politicians just aren’t talking about the right issues, that if they just addressed the things young people care about (which are, incidentally, the exact same things I care about), young people would show up at the ballot box in droves.

None of that is true.

The reality is that young people in America have never cast ballots relative to their population size. When Boomers were young people, there was also a lot of handwringing about the fact that they didn’t vote in large numbers and that politicians just didn’t know how to appeal to them. They may have been kids, teenagers and college students in the 1960s, but as Boomers entered middle age, they emerged as a fiscally conservative voting bloc, backing politicians who slashed taxes and the social safety net and putting their immediate financial self-interests ahead of public investments (no, #NotAllBoomers, but a lot of Boomers who voted). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they revolutionized America (and not, in my opinion, in a good way).

Today, Millennials are in the same boat: We are the largest adult generation, but we have not yet come into our full power as a voting bloc. We are, like Boomers in the 1970s and the very early 1980s, still not voting in proportion to our numbers. And so we are not yet a force, but politicians are surely looking at what we do support and will hopefully react accordingly.

So why don’t Millennials vote? Why haven’t we leveraged our collective power sooner, when the planet is literally on fire and our futures are in limbo? For pretty much the same reasons young adults have never voted as much as they could and should: These are isolating, busy years. And Millennials also face unique challenges that may make this dynamic even more pronounced for us. Like generations of young adults before, we are in the early stages of our careers, which means our jobs are less flexible. But Millennials are also more likely to be cobbling together freelance and gig jobs than older folks; jobs today offer less stability and security, and less predictable hours, than the jobs of the 1980s. All of that means unpredictable schedules and less power than older workers to take an hour (or several) off to go vote on a Tuesday.

Despite being a generation obsessed with “wellness,” Millennials are shockingly unhealthy, especially when it comes to mental health. By some estimates, Millennials are the most depressed adults in American history, presenting with major depression more often than Gen Xers did at our age. And we’re less likely than older Americans to be insured, so we are in turn less likely to be treated not just for mental health issues, but also for problems like substance abuse.

About a third of us live below 200 percent of the poverty line. Millennials aren’t cash-poor avocado-toast-eaters. A lot of us are just plain poor. It doesn’t cost money to vote (at least not anymore, thanks voting rights advocates who have seen their gains systematically dismantled by the right), but it does cost time — an expense that seems to be ratcheted up in locations that are lower-income and disproportionately of color, where lines snake around entire blocks and last for hours. It can cost money to physically get to your polling place, and you’ll definitely lose money if you’re an hourly wage worker and you’re spending your time waiting to vote. These are very real barriers for a whole lot of young people.

Millennials are also the generation currently having and rearing children, and while our households are more egalitarian than ever, both parenting and work are also more intensive than ever — so we’re dedicating more time to working outside the home and more time to super-involved learning and play with our kids in the home. Working mothers today spend as much time with their kids as stay-at-home moms did back in the 1960s, and the hours today’s moms spend are more likely to be interactive, rather than just being in the same general space.

All of this means isolation, which feeds into making Millennials the loneliest generation. About a quarter of us say we don’t even have a single acquaintance(!) outside of our immediate family and spouse; close to the same number say we don’t have a single friend. Trying to work and raise kids, which is what a majority of Millennials are up to these days, is profoundly isolating in a culture that still emphasizes a nuclear family ideal and a country that puts nearly all of the burden on individual workers and parents to figure it all out.

Isolated people don’t vote. Overwhelmed people don’t vote. And people who seen their right to vote systematically suppressed, which is the case for too many American college students, don’t vote.

We know, for example, that mail-in voting increases youth voter turnout. When you give young people the time and the easy ability to fill out their ballots at home and pop them in the mail, they do it. It’s wrangling kids, getting time off of work, getting yourself to your local voting place where you could be standing in line for hours that’s a big barrier to the young, broke, under-employed parents that make up the Millennial generation.

There’s also the issue of race. Millennials are the most diverse adult generation in American history, and Gen Zers are even more racially and ethnically diverse than we are. Those Republican Party efforts to suppress the votes of black and brown Americans? They have a disproportionate impact on Millennials, who are a lot more likely than Silents, Baby Boomers, or Gen Xers to be black or brown.

We know how to fix this: Make voting easier; let people do it at home; make efforts to bring in more voters, not exclude them. The question isn’t what to do if we want more young people to vote; it’s whether we have the will, and whether we dedicate the resources to get it done. Yelling at the young isn’t working and it never has. Meet them where they’re at — which is working their butts off in their jobs and at home raising the next generation.

(And yes, I am writing a whole book about this, please do feel free to buy it).

xx Jill