Millennials provide insight into what they want from their communities, elected leaders

BY KATE COIL

As aging Baby Boomers retire and a new, younger generation makes its way both into the workforce and as citizens, many municipal officials are finding themselves asking the same question: What do Millennials want?

Also known as Generation Y, Millennials are typically considered to be those born from around 1980 to those born in the year 2000. The Millennial generation is often described as having an increased use and familiarity with digital technologies, media and communications as well as a skepticism about long-term economic prospects due to the fact most Millennials came of age during the Great Recession. Volunteerism and advocacy – though not necessarily in tradition forms – are also common among the Millennial generation.
Four members of this generation were on hand at the Tennessee Municipal League Annual Conference in Murfreesboro to provide some insight on both what Millennials can do for government and what government can do for Millennials.

Drew Danieley, a sales manager at the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation; Courtney Brandon, the MTSU Student Government Association president; Hannah Leyhas, the MTSU Student Government Association attorney general; and Dhilan Ramaprasad, a recent graduate of Morristown West High School and student council president; all weighed in on how their generation and government can best work together.
All four panelists said very little time was spent on state and local government or civics lessons in their schools and those who wanted more information about how local governments operate had to seek it out themselves, often from non-school sources such as scouting or volunteering opportunities.
Recent surveys have indicated that Millennials tend to have a more negative view of government. Brandon said she felt the reason is because Millennials are more focused on social media and the negativity portrayed therein. Danieley said Millennials believe government is important but are dissatisfied with the lack of cooperation and cohesiveness in modern government.

“Our generation is one of openness and cohesiveness between many different groups, but I think as of late, a lot of that isn’t there in government,” he said. “For a lot of us — since the time we started really paying attention to government — all we’ve known is gridlock. It gives you a certain sense of skepticism. We recognize how important government work is, but for us, the manner in which you do it is just as important. We are looking for leaders who are open to practicing and perfecting the lost art of compromise. We haven’t had that in our experience.”

Leyhas said Millennials also have a hard time understanding that government operations can be a long process.
“We are a generation that is very big on instant gratification,” she said. “I mean, when my Facebook app doesn’t load fast enough I get frustrated so naturally it is going to make us frustrated when government takes a while. A lot of us also haven’t been taught why government can take a while.”

Ramaprasad said the fact that everyone can voice their opinion and do it instantly can also lead to information overload on issues.
“We are provided with so much information now,” he said. “It can leave some of us in a state of confusion as to which is the right path. The divisiveness of our political system makes it hard to know who to believe. We do believe in the effectiveness of government, but we want to see a compromise and our leaders working together.”

Ramaprasad said local government leaders can help Millennials gain a more positive impression of government, especially on the local level, by showing them how government is working in their favor.

“I think it can be very important to tap into our generation by showing us what you are doing and why it is important to us,” he said.
Danieley said Millennials are often just exposed to where government goes wrong.

“We need to see the stories of your successes,” he said. “We need to see the day-to-day of how government works and where it has made a positive impact on day-to-day lives. And we need to see that on platforms we use like social media.”

Brandon said most Millennials are only exposed to local government officials on the campaign trails.
“We only see them when they are promoting themselves or when they are campaigning for something,” she said. “A lot of what we also learn about them is negativity coming from their opponents. That negativity makes you feel like you know someone before they are even in office and colors your opinion of them.”

None of the four panelists read hard-copy newspapers or magazines, though some do read online versions. All four panelists believed some of the best ways to communicate directly with Millennials through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well as through applications or apps on phones. While the panelists said they didn’t really use city websites directly, connecting to a city website via social media to direct Millennials to more information on the city website would be a benefit. All four panelists also said they had been in contact with a local official – whether through Facebook, attending a meeting or town hall, signing petitions or writing letters and emails.

When communicating with public officials, Danieley said Millennials want feedback and it will encourage them participate in government or listen to local leaders.
“Last month I had a question about a piece of legislation being considered in Washington, D.C.,” Danieley said. “I sent an email to my Congressman just asking why he chose a particular stance. I got a response, which made it a really positive experience. If I hadn’t gotten a response, that would have been a totally different experience. To have been given a response from my legislator and given his reasons – whether or not I agree with them – really meant a lot to me as a voter.”
Ramaprasad said he, too, feels that getting a response from government officials is important.

“That personal touch that lets me know I am actually communicating with my lawmakers means a lot,” he said. “Of course, there are some I have never really gotten a response from. But I think if more people knew how to communicate with their lawmakers, they would participate more in government. I did have to do a little digging to get those email addresses.”

Brandon said Millennials are starting to feel like they may have more impact on the local level of government.

“If you look back at the last presidential election, you see the way the majority of Millennials voted was not the way the election turned out,” Brandon said. “So, I feel like I can make more of a difference locally. You have more of a chance and it’s easier to make a difference. Local leaders give you more of a response and are more willing to listen to you than those on the state or national level.”

Ramaprasad said some Millennials do feel discouraged with the voting process at large because they may not get the results they want on the national level.
“We do not realize how much power our vote holds in these city and county elections,” he said. “We distrust the efficacy of our vote in the presidential election and wonder why it matters. Then these city and county elections come around and we don’t vote. But those are the places where our vote really matters and has an impact.”
Brandon said not everyone in the Millennial generation is taught how to vote or how to get their voter’s registration, and that communities could benefit by helping educate them on the election process.

Danieley said he would describe the Millennial generation as very philanthropic, but not necessarily in the same way as generations before them.
“We don’t just want to write a check for a cause we believe in,” he said. “We want to be actively engaged. We are a generation about experiences. As opposed to just writing a check, we want to help build the non-profit and engage with our causes. Knowing that we are more about engaging than fundraising, you can tap into that. Help us to create these fundraisers or start that 5K for a particular cause. That is a real way to identify and connect with people our age.”

Brandon said Millennials are big on volunteering their time and skills to causes.
“I’m not rich; I’m a college student,” Brandon said. “But I look to help others in whatever way I can. I feel by being there and actively participating in particular cause, I can encourage others to get involved too.”

Leyhas said many Millennials are more certain of what causes they want to advocate for than even what careers they want.
“What I want to do as a career changes 20 times in the next three minutes to five days,” Leyhas said. “But I know philanthropy is important to me. I grew up in the Girl Scouts and have been involved in some type of public service throughout my life. Even though I have no clue what I want to do with my life, I know I want to stay involved in the Girl Scouts and the organizations I volunteer for. I know you can’t buy a house that way or pay your bills that way, but I also know at the end of my life, I will feel more fulfilled having helped others than worrying about how much my mortgage is a month.”

If local governments want to employ Millennials, they may need to actively seek those employees out. Ramaprasad there is a lot more of a focus on career and technical educational, not so much on public service and government. As a result, Millennials are often uneducated about government jobs.
“Students in high school don’t really know what is going on or what careers are available,” he said. “I think they would be interested in these jobs if they really understand what jobs are available. There isn’t a focus on public service education.”

Leyhas said engaging with Millennials on social media or personally can show them not only what jobs are available in government but also what those jobs are really like. Brandon agreed that Millennials might be more open to government jobs if they had more exposure to them.

“If you think about how basic education is run in America, you see that at the age of 18 you are given just a general education without any chance to try out a new path. Then you are given the question of what you want to do with the rest of your life,” Brandon said. “It is kind of insane because you go through these four-year bachelor degree programs, but people are taking longer because they don’t stick with that decision they made at 18. They weren’t given a chance to try different paths. I think if local government could show students what is out there and what they can do with these careers they would be interested.”

As far as retaining Millennial employees, Danieley said employers need to be aware the newer generation has issues other generations may not have faced before – like large amounts of student debt.

“The people who are coming out of school right now often have a tremendous amount of student debt,” he said. “They may require some sort of debt assistance program, if it is within your realm to do so. There is also a mentality among our generation that is more about growing as a person than climbing the corporate ladder. We want an environment where we are satisfied in our job but also feel supported by those in higher-up positions.”

Some members of the Millennial generation say they also feel their career ambitions may be stymied by misconceptions about them. Ramaprasad said he feels members of other generations believe Millennials are entitled, but Millennials don’t see themselves that way.

“We believe in opportunities for everyone, that everyone should be equal,” he said. “Millennials understand much more than people believe. We just have a new way of thinking about opportunities.”

Danieley said a lot of older generations sometimes think Millennials are apathetic or only care about what they may get out of a situation.
“People think we are just in it for ourselves, and because of that, we won’t stick around on a job very long,” Danieley said. “Long-term financial sustainability is part of our goals, and homeownership as well. There is this stigma that once we get to a position we are gone, but we have long-term career goals. We are very philanthropic but we may show it in a different way. We are more engaged with experiences.”

Brandon said she sometimes feels that employers immediately write her off just because of her age and their misconceptions about her.
“I do believe we have certain privileges because of the advancements in society, but we have the same aspirations, goals and hopes as every other generation,” Brandon said. “While we may have been given different opportunities, those goals remain the same.”

Leyhas said Millennials are also often stereotypes as lazy.
“We do work really hard for what we have,” she said. “I also think one of the things about Millennials is we want to see the value in what we are doing. I think we want to know what we did had value and we mattered in our lifetime. I think for a lot of us, our job is a way to earn a paycheck but that isn’t going to be what makes us happy. I see that in my parents’ generation that they do jobs they don’t see value in just for the paycheck. We see a difference in doing something because we find it valuable versus because you have to.”