Stop Blaming Millennials for Being Disillusioned | Opinion

There's a lot of anxious speculation about the youth vote wildcard, whether young people will turn out and tip the election or shrug off responsibility and stay on the couch.

A recent column by a Boomer writer framed the effort to register them to vote as a "fight against apathy, ignorance and video games." They're accused of being coddled, delicate "snowflakes," uneducated about civic life, cynical and disengaged.

But that's a false narrative. It scapegoats young people for embodying worrying trends that are broad-based and affect other age groups.

Civic engagement is declining, not just among youth, but across the board. When youth-led social movements like DREAMers, #BlackLivesMatter, or #NeverAgain buck that trend, the backlash from older adults is virulent.

Rudolph Giuliani called #BlackLivesMatter "inherently racist." John Kelly said DREAMers may have been "too lazy" to sign up for DACA. Rush Limbaugh said #NeverAgain would solve nothing and the answer was carrying more guns in schools. Hackers, trolls, and death threats have been the wages of young people's activism. Yet millions remain fiercely engaged.

They're no less educated about civics than other age groups. The last national Civics Assessment found only 23 percent of eighth graders proficient, but only 19 percent of people 45 and under were able to pass a simple civics test.

Their economic outlook is pessimistic, but that's part of a bigger trend. 55 percent of millennials say they're worse off than their parents, and their median income is 20 percent lower. But economic mobility has been declining since the1940s, and income inequality has been rising since the 1970s.

Millennials may be the first generation with worse health than their parents due to higher stress, depression and anxiety. A quarter of college students are clinically stressed since the 2016 election. The percentage who experience depression and anxiety (39 percent), or suicidal thoughts (11 percent), nearly doubled over the last decade. But they aren't alone. Among all American adults, a quarter have anxiety disorders, half will develop some mental illness, and suicide rates rose 30 percent since 2000.

We need to stop blaming young people for these broader phenomena to discern the drivers behind them. If there is one, overarching factor that cuts across age groups but affects young people disproportionately, it's the firehose of social and economic change we're living through.

Read more: Why Millennials Will Save America | Opinion

Technology and globalization haven't only disrupted politics; they've doomed the old economic and social order. A new strategic landscape is emerging where change is the only constant. Repetition-based jobs and careers, where you master a specialized skillset and use it over and over again, are stagnating and will disappear. Most young schoolchildren will end up doing jobs that don't even exist yet.

The siloed, top-down knowledge and leadership structures that ruled the old repetition-based economy are fading, too. Until recently a handful of elites controlled the levers of social change: insider knowledge, mass communications, fund raising, etc. Now they're apps anyone can download.

Millennials emerged into a disrupted 21st century economy with 20th century educations, only to find careers and norms they prepared for evaporating. iStock

That spells massive disruption and dislocation, and also massive opportunity to strengthen democracy and make all our lives better. As more of us understand and accept our ability/responsibility to use the new tools we have to lead change, the pace and depth of change accelerates.

I call this "the changemaker effect." It's the new reality of civic engagement for everyone. But young people are the ones who see it's a new game. They sense viscerally the rules have changed, but they lack the playbook.

Millennials emerged into a disrupted 21st century economy with 20th century educations, only to find careers and norms they prepared for evaporating. As they reach voting age, they encounter politics that don't reflect their reality, and are understandably disillusioned. They overwhelmingly want a third party, and say what matters most in this election isn't ideology or even honesty; it's a candidate who can make change.

Bill Clinton called Hillary Clinton "the best darn changemaker" in 2016, though she was essentially a status quo candidate in a change election. This year, many candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, try to claim the "changemaker" mantle for themselves or deny it to their opponents.

But politicians don't understand it as young people do. They may court "the youth vote" by talking about piecemeal issues. But they don't speak to the existential question young people face: how they'll live, work and engage in the changemaker era.

Any tech executive will tell you the key to surviving and thriving amid rapid change is breaking down silos and bringing people together to solve problems and leverage opportunities. To fully engage young people, electoral politics and candidates would need to do the same: embrace continual innovation, not nostalgia; value empathy, inclusion, and working together in fluid, diverse teams, not authoritative hierarchies; reach across divides, not build new ones; elicit everyone's contribution, not demonize or marginalize those with different views.

Whether or not young people turn out sufficiently to influence the midterms, they've got a bigger task in front of them: reshaping our politics. Old factions fighting to defend shrinking turf must evolve into concerted cooperation, inclusiveness and problem solving. That's the politics young people seek, and it's up to them to build it.

Hon. Henry F. De Sio, Jr. was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and Chief Operating Officer of the 2008 Obama campaign. He has been the Global Chair for Framework Change at Ashoka, with its Lead Young campaign, and has taught courses and residencies around the world on youth as agents of transformative change.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​​