A Special Op-Ed by Missouri Secretary of State, Jason Kander
Being the youngest statewide-elected official in the country and a millennial myself, I get asked questions about the millennial generation on a regular basis.
Elected to the Missouri legislature at 27, I never thought I would be elected statewide – as Secretary of State – at 31. I certainly never imagined that so many individuals at least a decade older than me would begin to inquire and complain about my “generation” so openly with me as though I was the ambassador for millennial voters.
I was accustomed to thinking of myself as an American, a veteran, a Midwesterner and a Democrat. But the “millennial” label caught me off guard when not long after being sworn in someone referred to me as “the first millennial elected to statewide office” and proceeded to ask me to pontificate about the millennial voter.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to talk much that January evening. Those around me began chiming in with the stereotypes of the millennial generation. We don’t put down roots. We are career driven, not service driven. We don’t vote reliably. We don’t think “big picture.” We are individualistic rather than thinking of ourselves as homogenously American. We never stop playing with our smartphones. We keep up with the Kardashians but not with what is going on in Congress.
Maybe there is some truth behind a few of those stereotypes. It is true that many millennials can debate the pros and cons of Android versus iOS as though they were raised in Silicon Valley. But, it is not just smart devices that make us the most mobile generation in American history.
We are less likely than those before us to buy a home and settle down early in one community for the rest of our lives. We are ready to chase job opportunities and cultural enrichment around the country or globe. Studies have shown the millennial generation to be not only the largest generation in American history – 80 million strong – but also the most diverse, 40 percent non-white.
I do challenge the notion that we are averse to service and public engagement. It became obvious to me that many over 40 do not think the rest of us participate. But we do.
Millennials were one-fifth of the electorate in 2012 and will be one-third of the electorate in 2020. In 2010, 21 million were registered and 5 million voted. In 2012, the year I was first elected on the statewide ballot, 33 million millennials were registered nationwide and 17 million voted.
Millennials vote in somewhat of the same way they determine their professional lives. This is a generation that ties personal identity closely to employment, preferring to do something positive rather than just bring home a paycheck. If you doubt this claim, I’d remind you that at this moment substantial portions of those fighting for this country are millennials who voluntarily joined the military during a time of war. Yet we have the audacity to unfairly label this generation as selfish.
I don’t pretend to speak for the whole of a generation. But I do know, from my own life, that the contemporary events I came of age amidst fostered in me a sense of public engagement and service. I was on my way to a chemistry lab for class when American Airlines flight 77 struck the Pentagon just a few miles away.
Like so much of the country, I felt the need to do something. After standing in line to give blood in downtown Washington for two hours, a nurse came outside and told us they had all the blood they could accommodate – we should just go home and stay safe. But I still felt the need to do something. I knew then and there that I would serve my country.
A bad knee required me to undergo surgery and physical therapy before the Army would take me, but two years after being turned away at the blood bank, I felt enormous pride as I raised my right hand and enlisted. A year later, a day before my graduation from Georgetown Law School, I received my commission as a military intelligence officer. After five months of intelligence training in the desert and mountains of southern Arizona, I volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan.
Things got real for me when I arrived in Afghanistan and was told to write my blood type on my boots. I looked around and saw that all the guys had it. I knew where I was. I knew how serious things were. I knew leadership mattered at every level. It was there, as a lieutenant investigating corruption within the Afghan government, that I really came to understand the importance of our leaders in elected office and that the decisions made in our government affected me personally – affected all of us.
Sometimes, those decisions and the people who make them can leave you discouraged. I found the Bush administration’s focus on Iraq at the expense of Afghanistan to be shortsighted, possibly politically driven, and certainly frustrating. I wasn’t the only soldier who felt that way during my deployment. In late 2006 and early 2007, it often felt like those in Washington – even some of our military leaders – were paying no attention at all to Afghanistan.
The decisions made by those in Washington, at that time, seemed so detached from what we were trying to accomplish. I was really beginning to question if anyone in our civilian chain of command “got it” or if they were just looking at public service as a never-ending game. Neither my patriotism nor my belief in the mission I’d been given ever wavered while I was overseas, but by the time I neared the end of my deployment, I was pretty disappointed in politicians as a group.
My deployment and what I took away from it inspired me in part to run for public office myself. When I came home, I ran for and won a seat in the Missouri legislature.
I am not alone as a millennial looking to engage. Whether it is public or military service or simply showing up at the voting booth on Election Day, millennials are engaging and have their own perspectives on what they are looking for in leadership.
Millennials are not running from public service or public engagement. On the contrary, they want leaders who are willing to challenge them – to invite them to the table. People of my generation are wondering, “When will they ask something of me?” Millennials are looking for leaders – from the White House to the State House – eager to move the national conversation in a direction that makes use of common sense.
Jason Kander is an American politician from the state of Missouri – born in 1981 – and is a member of the Democratic Party. He is the current Missouri Secretary of State, the youngest statewide elected official in America, and a veteran of Afghanistan.