Opinion | Buck up, America. Help is on the way.

May 9, 2024

By Theodore R. Johnson, The Washington Post

More than a decade ago, I arrived in the nation’s capital on a White House fellowship. For a young military officer, it was a once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunity — the kind of posting that can lead to promotions and plum assignments. Among the many things I had hoped to experience, the most exciting prospect was to be in the rooms where the adults were. Life in the military’s tenured culture often depended on the graybeards with stars for rank who met behind closed doors to make decisions about our future. Those admirals and generals, in turn, took their orders from the people I was here to meet: the grown-ups in Washington.

They couldn’t possibly be the melodramatic political characters familiar from cable TV news — the ones busy demonizing everyone who sees the world differently. Surely, somewhere, there was a principled cohort working in rooms where partisanship and ambition were shelved in favor of doing the right thing for the country. A naive thought, perhaps, but democratic republics require public trust, so it’s natural to look for assurances.

Those articles of faith can be hard to come by. That’s especially true for young people. Data suggests they are more skeptical about democracy than older generations. They are more likely to believe the country should explore alternative forms of government. And they participate in elections less: Millennials and Gen Z have the lowest voter turnout ratesand make up about two-thirds of nonvoters. Yet while Americans of all ages are split on whether democracy is working well, the young remain the most optimistic about its potential. They’re less partisan, committing to issues and causes more than to parties. For them, the real problem with democracy is the way the older generations use it.

I knew the feeling well. Low confidence in elected officials made it easy to opt out of elections until my 30s, entrusting my life to the military for more than a decade before investing my vote in a politician. No matter which candidates won the presidency or seats in Congress, life in the service depended on the officers appointed over us — a system that’s not at all democratic.

When I arrived in Washington and got a look inside the rooms where it happens, I was surprised by the number of young people there. That was naive, too. The newest generations have long powered the nation’s democratic institutions. In a country where the average age in the House of Representatives is 58 — and 65 for senators, and 79 for presidential nominees — the people doing the work that keeps these offices running are often two, even three, generations younger. The military is similarly structured: The average age of service members is a spry 28.5, meaning millennials and Gen Z are the ones keeping us safe at night. Young people have always been in the halls of power.

And more often than they get credit for, they are the adults in the room — the ones putting politics and selfish pursuits aside to do the most good for the most people.

Age is so often associated with wisdom that it’s sometimes mistaken for the cause of it. Being older mostly means having more life experience, which is different than using experience to make sound — and, hopefully, principled — decisions. There’s no age requirement for wisdom. Poverty and abuse and illness teach their lessons quickly, and too often early. Other experiences — like future wars and an overheating planet — belong to a future in which today’s young people have the largest stake. Who better to apply their wisdom to the country’s evolution than the next generation?

Modern American history suggests that’s a loaded question. Our electoral system is fashioned in a way that keeps young representatives few and far between. So we often see them working for change outside of those Washington rooms. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was just 26 when he led the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. A century ago, young women in factories demanded the right to vote, sparking a cultural and social revolution still reverberating in our politics. Young people fight the nation’s wars and protest them the most, too. In pointing out the nation’s shortfalls and hypocrisies, the young become a moral conscience for a people.

Last summer, I was part of a bipartisan summit for young state legislators, all of them millennials and Gen Z. It’s an annual event hosted by Future Caucus, a national nonprofit that connects the youngest generation of elected officials to resources and each other. In Washington, the first millennial arrived in the Senate only in 2021, and the first Gen Z member of the House is a freshman. But the summit was a groundswell of talent in local and state governments.

As a Gen Xer, I felt odd being the oldest person in the room. But surrounded by our democracy’s freshest faces, representing all sides of public debate, I found their principled and pragmatic optimism — a wisdom in its own right — reassuring. Inspiring, even. Maybe enough to help the grown-ups in our nations’ capitals act like adults.

Rep. Sara Jacobs


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