About a month ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the nation, ousting the district’s incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley in the primary election for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Crowley hadn’t faced an intra-party challenge in fourteen years, yet Ocasio-Cortez’s win sent him packing. Ocasio-Cortez, the face that launched a thousand nervous op-eds, is only twenty-eight years old. Given the significant Democratic slant of the district, she is likely to become the youngest member of the House of Representatives. Her victory has sparked a national discussion about millennials in government and whether they pose an “either-or” decision between experience and age.
Skepticism towards millennials is hardly new. There seems to be a whole genre of “news” about which industry millennials are killing today (diamonds, homeownership and cruises, oh my!) and jokes about participation trophies and selfies are the first arrow older generations pull from their quiver. However, if there’s a critique to be made regarding millennials, it ought to be of their dismal representation in Congress. As of 2016, only five members of Congress are under thirty-five years of age, a demographic representative of what will soon become the nation’s largest voting bloc.
Part of the representation issue millennials face are age restrictions for candidacy in both local and national governments that forbid citizens under certain ages from running for office. A career in national politics rarely springs up overnight, and preventing young people from running for lower office until they are pushing thirty prevents them from climbing to a higher office while still young. It’s an arbitrary, discriminatory practice that blocks promising young candidates and hoards power among people of a higher age and wealth bracket.
According to University of Utah student Christian Mower, Utah is ripe for change.
Utah has the youngest population in the nation, yet there are still age restrictions for state offices in our constitution. The median age of Utahns is 30 yet the youngest member of our 104-person legislature is 36.— Christian W. Mower (@cwmower) July 3, 2018
He believes that if you are old enough to vote, you are old enough to run. A fair point, considering age of candidacy laws hold real consequences for whose voices are heard. Age restrictions create an environment where fewer college students, renters, hourly-wage earners and people of color are able to consider a run for office.
I don’t say this because I want to run for public office. I don’t. But I’m surrounded by young people who are passionate, qualified, and would be extraordinary representatives for their communities. Yet they are silenced by age of candidacy laws.— Christian W. Mower (@cwmower) July 3, 2018
Mower, who previously served as Director of Government Relations for ASUU, thinks both major political parties should advocate for lowering the age of candidacy requirements in Utah. Both sides tell young people that their voices matter, and they should put their actions where their words are.
But if the election of Donald Trump has taught us anything, it’s that age guarantees neither maturity nor experience.— Christian W. Mower (@cwmower) July 3, 2018
Even where millennials are able to run for office, they face an uphill climb against misconceptions. I saw it first hand while volunteering on a campaign last year for twenty-four-year-old Tinesha Zandamela. Zandamela is a young Utahn who took the plunge and ran for District 5 of the Provo City Council — only to be dogged with criticism about her age and experience. She too has taken to Twitter to address what it was like running for office while regularly asked the very typical Utah question of how she could possibly be qualified when she was neither married nor a parent. “I really don’t like the insinuation that they have more life experience by virtue of being married,” especially when she already had relevant experience writing policy and directing an NGO. It’s a shortsighted shame, and because young candidates in Utah often know what it’s like to go through the process of gaining an education, they share in the stress of the housing market, terrible air quality and they understand how it feels to be underrepresented. “There is no formula to measure depth or breadth of experiences,” said Zandamela. “And thank goodness for that.”
It’s incredibly frustrating that millennials are excluded from the process at the filing office long before they can be tested on the ballot. When they do run, it’s ridiculous that their ability to represent is so suspect — as if older politicians are inherently more trustworthy or relatable. When it comes to experience, it is important to have representatives who share the stakes. While age alone doesn’t necessarily qualify or disqualify a candidate, there will be tangible consequences if the political representation of age demographics remains so skewed. Millennials are not inherently superior, but they are the demographic who face the skyrocketing rent, compounding debt from student loans and the adverse effects of climate change — all results of decisions made without their input. They should be at the brokering table.
If millennials were to take up the mantle of leadership, they’d be in good company. As of July 4th, 1776, James Madison was twenty-five, Thomas Jefferson was thirty-three and Alexander Hamilton was twenty-one. Put best by Lin-Manuel Miranda in his hit musical about our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
The future of America has always been dependent on the visionary contributions of young folks, and it is time they are again entrusted with such respect and responsibility. Ocasio-Cortez and millennials like her have risen to the challenge.