Ever since the protests against the Iraq War started nearly a decade ago, people have observed that a lot of the protesters have been baby-boomers or older. “Where are the young people?” has been asked both by critics of the protests and by many of the protesters themselves. The Occupy protests, which have a large component of people in their twenties or thirties, have provided part of the answer. But there is more to the story.
All around the country, young people who have been learning about government and politics by volunteering for Obama or other campaigns or helping organize grass roots initiatives are coming onto the public stage and running for office. Last week, Holyoke, Massachusetts elected a new mayor – a twenty-two year old who was a senior in college when he launched his campaign. During the 2008 election, a twenty-eight year old from downstate Illinois became the youngest elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives. And where I live, young people are running for office and getting elected.
One young candidate is Ilya Sheyman, who graduated college just a few years ago. He is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House. Another young candidate is Daniel Biss, who was elected to the Illinois General Assembly when he was thirty years old, and is now, two years later, running for the Illinois Senate.
Some people have expressed concern that some of these candidates are too young to hold such important jobs. I have known both Sheyman and Biss over a period of years. A few minutes into our first conversations, I forgot all about their age, because each of them had a command of the issues and an understanding of the political process that I have only seldom encountered in other candidates and officeholders regardless of how old they were or how long they had been in their jobs. But more importantly, both Sheyman and Biss are in touch with the challenges that the voters are experiencing during these tough times, and they have genuine concern for the people and a determination to make things better.
I don't write this post to promote these candidates, although I do support both of them. I write today simply to observe that the answer to the question “Where are the young people” is “Right where we want them to be.” They are stepping forward and making themselves available when their country needs them, just like their elders taught them they should.
I understand the hesitation some people have about supporting young candidates. Their lack of life experience might suggest that they are not prepared. But the young candidates whom I have seen emerge do not fit that generalization. They are ready, eager, and able. If we want young people to take an interest in politics and government, we should evaluate them on their merits, not on their birth certificates.