One hundred and thirty-three people spoke at this week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Less than a quarter of them were under the age of 30. Maybe that's because less than half those under 30 bothered to vote in the last election. In short, millennial representation in politics looks paltry, at best.
But a growing group of millennial activists are trying to change that.
Founded in 1932, the Young Democrats of America (YDA) is the largest youth-led political organization in America. Their mission, according to their website, is to "elect Democrats, advocate for progressive issues, and train the next generation of progressive leaders."
Revelist spoke with several YDA representatives at the DNC to find out how exactly they plan to do all that — and why it's so important to them.
Every officer we spoke with is 30 or younger, and works a full-time job while organizing for YDA on the side. They also all shared one complaint: Crushing student debt.
"I graduated college at the height of the Bush recession, and more than half of people my age — under 30 — were either under employed or unemployed," said Justin Conley, the former North Carolina Young Democrats president and a state delegate for Hillary Clinton. "We were promised the American dream: Work hard, play by the rules, get a good education [and] when you graduate you can get a job. And I didn't get that."
Danielle Glover, the Young Democrats vice president, had a similar experience.
"I'm 30-years-old," she told Revelist. "I'm a young professional, and I'm saddled with student loan debt."
But London Lamar, president of the Tennessee Young Democrats, acknowledged that while this might be a uniquely millennial problem, it also makes this generation uncommonly motivated.
"In [our parents'] generation people didn't necessarily need degrees to get a good job," she told Revelist. "And now that we have to, and are acquiring all this student debt, coming into the real world is completely different … So I think the millennials feel like, it's now or never."
The YDA representatives we spoke to embodied that "now or never" attitude.
Glover attended one of the top engineering schools in the country for only a few days, before transferring out to pursue a degree in politics. Conley left his secure teaching job in small-town North Carolina to pursue education advocacy full-time. And Lamar, raised by a single mother in a low-income household, ran for her state Democratic party after less than a year of involvement.
And both Lamar and Conley cited the same reason for getting involved in politics: the 2008 election of president Barack Obama.
"Honestly I never thought it was possible for Black people to reach that level," Lamar recalled of that election. "So he really inspired me to just take a chance and do what I love."
Once they leaped into the political world, the representatives said they were hooked. Conley recalled a 2014 race in which the Young Democrats helped flip two House seats from Republican to Democratic. To this day, the candidates credit the Young Democrats with winning that election by making phone calls and knocking on doors.
"I got hooked because I saw young people my age making impacts in our state legislature," Conley said.
This passion for public service may seem strange coming from the so-called "Me Generation."
Millennials get a bad wrap for being entitled, social-media-obsessed, and generally unconcerned with anything but themselves. But the Young Democrats we interviewed felt they were just as involved as their parents' generation — but in new and different ways.
Lamar waxed eloquent about her mother's and grandmother's steadfast commitment to voting. She admired the marches and protests of the Civil Rights Movement. But she also saw them as instruments of necessity, in a time before the internet age.
"We're just as socially conscious as they are," she told Revelist, "but we just use technology to get our message out. Because we can."
But Glover thinks this constant access to the internet — and its boundless information — could be doing her generation in.
"We're very Facebook savvy, and Twitter savvy, and can use all these things," she said. "But sometimes there's an information overload. What does it all mean?"
That's where organizations like the Young Democrats come in. Through policy briefings, voter outreach, and even karaoke nights, they try to make the complicated political system accessible to a younger audience with a shortening attention span.
"It's taken a long time, and I've been very active to be able to get in there and understand what it takes to make a change," Glover said. "So I want to take a generation that cares so much about the issues I care about, and be able to funnel it into ways that can be helpful and productive."
The Young Democrats officers dedicate their time to this work because, above all, they have faith in their generation.
"Young people just surpassed Boomers as the largest group of people [in the United States]" Conley said. "If they all voted, we would be the largest voting bloc in the nation."
To that end, Conley worked with his fellow North Carolina delegates to make sure 36% of their Democratic convention delegates were under the age of 30 — the same percentage of millennial voters in the state as a whole.
The kind of equal representation — for young people, women, and people of color — was a common theme throughout our interviews. Once a diversity of millennials had embedded themselves in the political system, the representatives felt, there was nothing they couldn't do.
"It's not just about voting, it's about getting involved in the policy discussions," Glover said. "…Once you can show people how effective it can be, that's when you make progress."