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Why Millennials Don't Run for Office

"I think a lot of them found this election disgusting," says a researcher who wants more young people to get involved in politics.
Photo by Jason Bergman

Millennials have a lot going on. They're poorer than their parents were, they aren't buying property, they've been described as apathetic, asexual, and even lacking basic survival skills. Stereotypes of the current generation paint them as lazy but also beset by forces beyond their control, a bunch of emotionally stunted 20-somethings scrolling blankly through their phones because that's all they can do.


That archetype might not hold up to scrutiny, but according to Shauna L. Shames, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers, it is true that few millennials have any interest in running for public office. Her book about the topic, Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Careers and Why it Matters, out January 31, features interviews with promising young adults who've gone to top schools but who refuse to get into politics because they see it as something that can't be fixed. (It's worth noting that a number of liberal groups are trying to change this.)

I spoke to her by phone recently to find out why these millennials rejected the most prominent kind of public service, how society can fix this problem, and why women of color are particularly opposed to running for office.

VICE: Why do you think millennials are not interested in running for office?
Shauna L. Shames: The people I interviewed or talked to are very elite. They're from Harvard Law, Harvard Kennedy School, and Suffolk Law School. The schools I picked are the ones most likely to send their graduates into politics. If these people don't want to run for office, I expect the larger population of millennials to feel these things more strongly.

Among millennials, there's a feeling that technology and particularly internet-based technology can solve a lot of problems; I think government feels outdated to a lot of young people. It feels not useful. It feels inefficient and ineffective—but to me that's painful. I'm a political scientist, and I really strongly believe there's things only the government can and should be doing. There are all kinds of public goods that don't get produced by themselves in the marketplace.


How does government suffer from these people not running?
I think there are a lot of really earnest and thoughtful and dedicated people who run for office, but there's also right now a huge amount of gridlock, hyper-partisanship, and people who are elected that have no business being there. It's very much in our interest to have more competition and a better crop of candidates that makes democracy work better. My fear right now is young people are just turning away from politics and rejecting it. In the book, I go out of my way and say how awful we have made running for office and politics in general at the national level right now. I don't fault millennials for not wanting political careers, but it ends up in a vicious cycle where we then don't get a good government that we would want.

How can we get young people more interested in running for office?
Higher rewards and lower cost would be a recipe to make a lot more millennials interested in running for office. I think if we could get young people involved through internships, through volunteering, maybe through clubs and civic groups, we could show them the rewards of politics. They could see firsthand that politics is actually people getting together to make the world better, that's what politics should be. Yes, it can be contentious, and yes, it can be a lot of people disagreeing, but there's exhilaration to that, too. There's something exciting about even if you don't agree, you're working together.


We could decrease the cost in a lot of ways. We could do public funding of campaigns, because it turns out that having to spend up to 70 percent of your time calling people to ask for money just so you can run a campaign sounds disgusting to young people, and I don't blame them. It's like signing up to make yourself a telemarketer. I think it's up to us to reform the system to make it far less costly. Also, the idea that your friends and your family will be subject to an invasion of their privacy [if you run for office] feels disgusting to a lot of young people.

I think a lot of them found this election disgusting. It's tough to blame them. I think it was a really distasteful election. Young people often don't vote—that's a long-standing trend over time—but if they like the candidate, they vote. For example, they voted much more in 2008 and 2012. I don't think either candidate inspired young people much this election, and I do understand why, but I'm sad about it. I don't think the baby boomers were inspired either, but they know you have to vote, even though you're not in love with either candidate.

What did your research tell you about women of color and why they are opposed to running for office?
They were the group least likely to want to run for office, and that's scary for the country, because it means that we could get an even more unrepresentative government if women of color don't run. I think our country needs women of color in charge right now, a different set of life experiences and perspectives at the table. The problem, in addition to the higher costs [of running for office], was the lower rewards for women of color. They were the least likely to see politics as useful in solving the kinds of problems they thought were important. That was a question on the survey. It was largely the black and Hispanic women who stood out in this case and did not see politics as useful in solving problems—and that breaks my heart.

They felt like they wouldn't get a fair shot at [winning office], and unfortunately, a lot of the social science research we have on things like implicit bias suggest that they might be right. If you look at just the cost side of the equation, the women of color generally felt more keenly aware of some of the costs that everybody felt. Nobody likes the idea of having to raise all this money, but women of color liked it even less than both white women and men of color. They also saw far more racism and racial bias, for example, than even men of color or the white women. I thought that was fascinating.

This was more about gender than race—for the women of color race came into it, but it added to what they felt was kind of a female disadvantage. I think women of color are our future in this country. I think that's where our demographics are headed. I welcome that.

The men of color, at least the ones that I spoke to, did not see as much racial bias and part of that might be because of Obama. These young people came of age politically with Obama's rise into the presidency. There might be kind of an Obama effect, but it seemed weirdly only to apply to them.

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