We mock them as the entitled occupants of parental basements. We blame them for killing everything from doorbells to starter homes to dating. We ignore the public policies and economy they inherited and breathlessly stereotype them into a perpetual adolescence of their own making. Yet, despite the relentless “kids these days” tropes, the reality is that the millennials have grown up — and are now ready to lead.
Born between 1981 and 1996, the youngest are now past traditional college age and the oldest have been #adulting for more than a decade. They are now the largest generation in the American labor force. You’re more likely to find a millennial at a PTA meeting, heading a community organization or putting in extra hours at work than at a bottomless brunch.
Millennials will soon surpass the Baby Boomers as the largest generation of voters. And after years of unrealized power they are beginning to harness their political strength in numbers. They doubled their voter turnout rates between 2014 and 2018 resulting in the most diverse midterm electorate in American history. Some post-election analysis even suggests that it was millennial votes who determined the outcomes of several key electoral contests.
Their burgeoning power as voters will be matched by the consequence of their realized political ambitions. A wave of millennial candidates in 2018 lessened some of the serious and valid concerns about their willingness to run for public office. Millennials now control 26 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; 20 of them were elected in the last cycle. They also jumped into races at the state level in record numbers. According to the non-partisan Millennial Action Project, more than 800 Millennials ran for state legislative seats during the midterms.
Baltimore City is ahead of the national curve in embracing this new generation of leadership. The 2016 citywide elections handed the majority of the Baltimore City Council seats to the under-40 crowd. Moreover, the recent appointment of 35-year-old Brandon Scott as City Council president attests both to his own merits and an outcome of the generational shift on the council.
There are, of course, already several cities with millennial mayors — for example Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and Aja Brown of Compton, Calif. — and millennials are increasing their numbers in local elected offices across the country. But there are few, if any, cities with both a millennial mayor and majority serving on the local legislative body. Announced retirements plus the ages of the potential candidates for mayor and City Council could make Baltimore the largest U.S. city with a majority-millennial government.
At this point, however, it’s difficult to predict exactly what that might mean. We know a lot about the politics and lifestyle of this generation, but know comparatively little about the impact of their service in elected office. Recent research on millennials in the workforce, however, provides some clues.
For example, a Gallup study found that millennials have a profound sense of ownership in their work and care deeply about seeing projects to their completion. They flourish when held accountable, and accomplishments fuel them to do more. Elected officials motivated to meet public demands by shepherding projects from start to finish would be an asset to a city searching for measurable progress.
Other studies find that millennials embrace “flat management” structures with few or no levels between leadership and staff. This organizational style could be particularly advantageous where employees lowest in professional rank are those who work most closely with city residents. These street-level bureaucrats intimately understand where policies fail the public. A management style that provides more access to decision makers might generate creative, bottom-up solutions to Baltimore’s core issues of poverty, racial inequity and crime.
Millennials prefer workplaces that embrace new technologies. The ransomware attack that crippled Baltimore’s computer system represents only the most egregious example of the problems associated with government run on outdated systems. Updates to technological infrastructure, to be sure, will only happen if made an explicit priority of elected leadership.
The most notable characteristic of millennials is their rejection of the status quo and desire to find new ways to solve problems. Could government built on resistance to doing things “the way we’ve always done them” bring the change Baltimore City needs? We might just find out in 2020.
Mileah Kromer is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, which conducts the Goucher Poll. She is also an associate professor of political science. Born in 1981, she is among the first of the millennials. Her email is email@example.com; Twitter: @mileahkromer.