Meet the 26-Year-Old Trying to Create an AARP for Millennials

A new group called the Association of Young Americans is trying to give Millennials the power and clout that older people have thanks to the AARP.

by Harry Cheadle
Apr 8 2016, 6:55pm

Just some cool stock photo Millennials chilling around bein' political. Photo via Joos Mind/Getty

A simplistic but not exactly wrong, way to think of politics is as a collection of interest groups playing a many-sided game of tug-of-war. The gun lobby wants to make it easy for people to buy guns. Abortion rights groups want to make it easy for women to access abortions. Many conservative Christians want to make it hard for some people to use the bathroom. But one player stands out above all others, one interest group truly terrifies politicians, one lobby rules them all: old people.

Old people's dominance in politics is so ubiquitous that it usually goes unremarked upon, just like fish probably don't talk a lot about water. But the older-50 crowd and their premiere lobbying group, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), is a behemoth. In 2014, Al Jazeera reported, AARP had 38 million members and a budget of $1.8 billion. As a result of AARP's efforts—and the tendency of older Americans to vote in large numbers—talking about cuts to Medicare or Social Security has become the most electrified third rail of American politics.

All of the major candidates for president support leaving those entitlement programs intact—when Ted Cruz discusses reforms like raising the retirement age, he's careful to emphasize that these changes won't affect today's seniors. Even Donald Trump, who has joked about killing someone and has no problem suggesting that the US military should be allowed to commit war crimes, won't say anything controversial about Social Security.

You can look at an organized effort like AARP's as emblematic of what's wrong with American democracy and the lobbying culture that's attached to it like a giant remora on a particularly dim-witted shark—or you can say, I gotta get me some of that.

That's what motivated Benjamin Brown, 26, to start the Association of Young Americans (AYA), a group that he hopes one day will rival AARP in power and clout but will use its heft on behalf of 18-to-35-year-olds.

The germ of the idea was planted in Brown's head in 2012, when he read an op-ed in the Washington Post about the problems facing younger Americans: failing schools, the rising cost of college, a national infrastructure on the verge of collapse, and the massive cost of those untouchable entitlement programs that benefit the elderly. The piece concluded with a quote from former Senator Allen Simpson, which said that politicians wouldn't listen to the concerns of Millennials until someone could walk into their offices and say, "I'm from the American Association of Young People. We have 30 million members, and we're watching you, Simpson. You [mess with] us and we'll take you out."

"For two or three years I really have not been able to stop thinking about that," Brown tells me. "It's kept me up at night. Why don't young Americans have a lobbying group?"

Well, they do as of two weeks ago, when Brown's AYA kicked off its self-described "soft launch." It's still in its infancy—it has only "hundreds" of members, according to Brown, and just over 200 Facebook likes, but Brown's ambitions are big. There are an estimated 80 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 35, making Millennials the largest chunk of the voting-age population in the country.

"I think that if a lobbyist walked in supported by tens of millions of young people, it would change the game," he says, and provide so much force that it might even overcome Congress's notorious tendency toward gridlock and stonewalling that has made legislation on the national level nearly impossible in recent years.

The top issues for AYA, which Brown determined through surveys of young people, are the high cost of college and student loans, the way the very wealthy control the political process through campaign donations, and racial bias in the criminal justice system.

The focus is on inequality in its various forms, which isn't exactly surprising—though Brown emphasizes that AYA is nonpartisan—as any collection of Millennials is probably going to lean leftward. However, polls have found that although the generation doesn't like to identify with a political party and is split on a few social issues (primarily abortion), the majority lean Democratic, and as Bernie Sanders's candidacy has shown, a lot of young people are eager to back a candidate who speaks the language of economic and social justice.

Identifying these priorities, though, is the easy part. The difficulty comes in the nuts-and-bolts of organizing and administration. Brown has ideas for that, too; he wants to "pull the veil back on what our lobbyists will be doing" and give members the chance to interact with the lobbyists directly, making the normally behind-closed-doors aspect of the process a bit more open.

Members pay $20 a year to support those lobbying efforts—in exchange, they get perks, as AARP members do. Currently the only benefits listed on the site are $75 off on a mattress delivery from a company called Tuck and 15 percent off purchases from Zest Tea, but Brown says there will be more deals on everything from streaming services to travel.

"Those two pieces—the lobbying and the deals—means that we can help young people save money every day," Brown says, "and it means we can work to solve the long-term problems holding us back."

But there's another problem holding young people back: Unlike the AARP's membership, they don't vote. Though Millennials have enormous potential political power, it mostly goes unused—in the 2014 midterm elections, only 21 percent of voters under 30 cast ballots. Naturally, Brown thinks AYA can bridge that enthusiasm gap between the young and the old.

"The list of reasons why young people don't vote is long but not particularly complicated," he says. "Young people don't vote because they feel like they have no power and it doesn't really matter. But what AYA is doing is it's giving them their power immediately... Once they have ownership of the process and they're plugged into it they'll be more engaged."

Unfortunately, that's the catch-22 baked into every effort to get young people energized about politics: If they aren't already engaged, it seems unlikely they'll cough up the price of a gram of weed a year to join a group like AYA. And until AYA is big and strong like a grown-up person, it won't be able to engage anyone.

Most efforts to get young people excited for politics are cringefests. Rock the Vote's video of Lil Jon voting in the 2014 elections did not exactly set the world on fire; Lena Dunham's stumping for Hillary Clinton failed to get her fellow Millennials Ready for Hillary. AYA's approach is largely devoid of the sort of in-your-face, celebrity-based selling that some people assume will appeal to kids. Will AYA's fairly serious, staid, policy-based approach be enough to excite potential members?

But it seems unfair to judge AYA before it's truly off the ground (it hasn't yet actually hired any lobbyists). Every big dream starts small—when AARP was founded by a retired principal in the 50s, Medicare didn't even exist. Only time will determine whether AYA is something Millennials will actually glom on to, a la Facebook, or whether it will wind up in Ello-esque obscurity.

"Right now we're really focused on outreach and membership," Brown says. You can't lobby for no one."