Millennials have potential for new kind of leadership

September 25, 2015 | By Tommy Calvert Jr.

In the last midterm elections, voter turnout among young adults 18-29 years old was at the lowest rate in the last 40 years, according to an analysis from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

The study noted only 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year old registered voters cast ballots in the 2014 elections. Of course, every other age demographic also registered similar valleys in participation. At the same time, Americans’ grasp of how government operates is embarrassingly low.

The results of a national survey in 2012 from Xavier University revealed that one in three native-born Americans would fail the civics portion of the naturalization test for immigrants. On the other hand, immigrants who apply for citizenship have a 97 percent pass rate.

These survey results have many people wondering: are we headed toward a bleak political future?

I think there are many reasons to be optimistic and not panic. The millennials (a generation born roughly between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) have achieved record high voter participation and volunteerism and some low participation for their youngest cohorts, who may be re-categorized at a later date by demographers to a different generational group. When one looks at the variance in civic participation among young people over the last 40 years, one sees about the same participation rates, which gives hope that when the baton is passed to a new generation of leadership, many will remain engaged in the political process.

While the civic and greater educational system may have failed many millennials, the caliber of leadership this generation will send to elected leadership will keep our nation on the right track for growth and prosperity.

While serving on the board of United Leaders at the Harvard Institute of Politics, I listened to a lecture from William Strauss and Neil Howe — the foremost experts on our generation and authors of the book “Millennials Rising.”

There they laid out research that millennials have the potential to be the next “Greatest Generation” — even greater than the GI warriors from World War II that kept the world free from Hitler and the threat of global totalitarianism, fascism and dictatorship.

Overall, millennials volunteered at the highest rate of any generation. Yet they haven’t connected the dots to see politics as a way to help transform the conditions in the soup kitchens they volunteer in or the after-school programs where they tutor.

It’s no wonder they don’t see politics as helpful; their baby boomer parents have been engaged in partisan gridlock that can bring our nation to its knees.

The authors of “Millennials Rising” wrote 16 years ago that baby boomers would fracture the political system and because of their inability to cooperate and get things done, millennials would come in and wipe out the boomers from elected office and emerge as the most results-oriented, highly educated, diverse, cosmopolitan and cooperative force in American political history.

Most of what Howe and Strauss wrote in 1999 about the political trends of millennials and other generations has come true. For example, they wrote that millennials would assert themselves for the first time in American politics in the late 2000s. That proved true in 2008 when young voters matched their WWII grandparents in voter participation to help elect the nation’s first African-American president.

So with the right candidates, education and challenges, millennials will rise from their community service roots into politics. And the data below give insight into where they will come from.

Volunteer data collected from the Corporation for National and Community Service states that Texas ranks 44th in millennial volunteerism in comparison to other states and San Antonio ranks 45th among major American cities for millennial volunteer rates. The top three organizations that funnel Texas volunteers are religious organizations, educational organizations and social service organizations, in that order.

As much as things change, things remain the same.

As we look forward to the 300th anniversary of Bexar County and the City of San Antonio, we are reminded that the religious church missions of San Antonio (Saint Anthony) along the San Pedro Creek (Saint Peter) are what founded and drove the civic missions we have today. Fortunately, the upbringings of many of our leaders are rooted in a powerful love for service to one another.

It will do our political system a lot of good to have its leaders once again see each other as brothers and sisters of a new frontier where we are working together as one nation toward a more perfect union.