When Barack Obama was elected to the White House, it was with the help of those voters so often overlooked by politicians: young adults. More under-30 voters turned out than had in a presidential election since 1992. A full two thirds voted for Obama. And then there was the leadership that young people displayed in the campaign itself, from the foot soldiers going door-to-door on up to Jon Favreau, the president's 28-year-old speechwriter.
There's no doubt that Obama inspired their engagement. For many, he still does. Since the election, volunteers who sacrificed sleep and stability on the campaign trail have pivoted to pushing for the White House agenda. "They've been fired up," Washington-based political fundraiser Scott Dworkin, 28, says of his peers. "I don't know if that political bug will go away anytime soon." Of all the friends he has who volunteered for Obama's campaign, Dworkin estimates that even now, with a recession and increasing frustrations over where the Democrats are headed, 80 to 90 percent remain active, either working in the new administration or volunteering for the Democrats.
Still, it's not all about the charismatic commander in chief, and there are many who cringe at the "Generation Obama" label they've been given. It's true that the millennials, broadly categorized as those born between the late 1970s and early 2000s, are generally progressive. In 22 years of surveying Americans about their political attitudes, the Pew Research Center, for example, has found that generation Y is more left-leaning than its elders on issues like affirmative action, immigration, and the appropriate scope of government—and more left-leaning than previous generations were at the same age. But many millennials are getting fired up for the GOP, too. And then there are all of those who are engaging in fields outside of politics.
Commitment to service. What they share regardless of political leaning, experts say, is a hands-on attitude. "These young adults don't tend to want to write the check. They want to be involved," says Colleen Carroll Campbell, author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christ ian Orthodoxy. "They like that feeling of giving back in person."
Experts point to another clear quality shared by many millennials: an altruistic impulse. "They really do want to make the world a better place," says Ron Alsop, author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up, a book about millennials. In one study, the percentage of college freshmen who have volunteered in the past year has climbed steadily in recent years, from 66 percent in 1989 to 95 percent in 2008. Much of that is because millennials are the first for whom community service has been a key to college admissions or even a requirement for high school graduation. For many, that commitment to service has stuck.
Take Sean Hammer. The 23-year-old South Brunswick, N.J., native admits that when he started volunteering in high school, "it was part of the push to get colleges interested in me." Yet it became much more.
Hammer began Princeton University with plans to head to medical school. At Princeton, he started tutoring local students, including a 10th-grade student who couldn't read a single sentence. Now a teacher at a socioeconomically diverse high school on the edge of Trenton, N.J., Hammer says that "med school is kind of on hold." He adds, "A lot of people, when I've told them I'm thinking about how I might become a teacher, I might become a doctor, they're like, 'You're all over the place.' But I see them as being very similar professions. It's all about working closely with other people and trying to make a positive impact."
That's not to say that millennial engagement is confined to community service. Generation Y is a politically active group, experts say. It's true that the youth vote still lags. While 64 percent of all Americans voted in 2008, 51 percent of those under the age of 30 did. But for anyone observing either of the presidential campaigns or, now, the administration, it's clear that young people are hardly on the sidelines.
Since millennials' political consciousness was forged in the divisive climate of the Bush years, it's little surprise that many were drawn to politics long before they heard of Barack Obama. Ava Lowery, a 19-year-old native of Alexander City, Ala., has been making short antiwar films for five years. She was first inspired into activism by news of the invasion of Iraq. Seeing television footage of bombs dropping, she says, "I thought, 'Surely those aren't all military targets. Surely there are some civilians dying.' " Shortly after that, she launched an antiwar blog; a year later, she made her first film.