Only 12% of older millennials would run for political office—far fewer than any other generation

As millennials begin to turn 40 in 2021, CNBC Make It has launched Middle-Aged Millennials, a series exploring how the oldest members of this generation have grown into adulthood amid the backdrop of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, student loans, stagnant wages and rising costs of living.

For Amit Singh Bagga, it was only a matter of time before he ran for office. After working in various government positions for the past 14 years, Bagga is running for New York City Council in November. 

"I've been someone who's been very politically engaged and involved since almost as far back as I can remember," says Bagga, 35. For him, running for office is not only about making government work for people, but also breaking a glass ceiling. 

Bagga, one of over 20 candidates running for a seat in his Council district, would be the first queer South Asian elected official anywhere in the nation if he wins in November. "You feel like you are doing this, not just for yourself, but for millions who make up the communities that you represent, and it is your obligation to make sure that you're doing right by them," Bagga says.

Yet for every candidate like Bagga there are far more older millennials like Rachael Everson. A 35-year-old former teacher now working as an office coordinator based in Memphis, Tennessee, Everson considers herself politically active. She votes and writes to her elected officials on occasion but has no plans to run for office herself. 

With over $200,000 in student loans still left to pay off, Everson says her finances are too precarious to live on the pay of a public servant, and she believes the lifestyle is too stressful.

In fact, while more than half of older millennials say they're politically active, only 12% say they have already run for public office or definitely plan to do so, according to a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of CNBC Make It among 1,000 respondents ages 33 to 40.

That's far fewer than other generations.

Nearly a third of Gen Z (ages 18 to 24) say they're definitely planning to run for office or have already done so, while about a quarter of both younger millennials (ages 25 to 32) and Gen X (ages 41 to 56) have similar responses, according to a separate, follow-up survey The Harris Poll conducted for CNBC Make It in April, polling over 2,000 U.S. adults in additional generations. 

"This generation is burnt out — from moving up in the workforce to paying off student loans to buying a home and raising children," says Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema. "Trying to balance all of these pressures while maintaining some semblance of a social life — that extra role as a school board or city council member might be a bridge too far."

Here's a look at why older millennials have a lack of desire to run for office, what the long-term implications are and how that trend may shift as this generation continues to age.

The costs/benefits of pursuing political office

For many older millennials, it comes down to a simple equation: Do the benefits of running for office outweigh the costs? For most, the answer is no, says Shauna Shames, a professor at Rutgers specializing in American political behavior and the author of "Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Careers and Why It Matters."

In many cases, potential candidates need to have a job that allows them time off or flexible hours to campaign and carry out the duties of the office if they win. Otherwise, they need to have savings they can tap if they leave their job because political roles often do not pay well.

If paid at all, annual salaries for elected officials on the local level can be as low $15,500, according to ZipRecruiter data. Top earners can make as much as $100,500, including full-time positions at the national level, such as senators and members of Congres.

It's a consideration for those who may have financial obligations, says Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of Run for Something, a political incubator that works with Americans ages 18 to 40 who are first-time, progressive candidates running for local office. And for older millennials, now is the time they are focused on trying to achieve life milestones such as building a successful career, owning a home and/or starting a family.

Bagga, for example, had to tap his savings when left his job as deputy director of New York City's 2020 census campaign six months ago in order to run.

"I will have entirely depleted my savings by the end of this. It's the reality," he says. "I have a mortgage, I have a car payment — these are all real demands on my finances." New York City councilmembers earn a salary of $148,500 a year.

Some simply don't like the job

Beyond financial concerns, many older millennials feel like they're being co-opted into a dirty system by running for public office.

Many aren't convinced politics is the way to accomplish the things they believe society needs, like better roads and schools, and creating good jobs and safe communities. This is a particularly common sentiment amid the backdrop of the gridlock and hyper partisanship that is present in politics at a national level, Shames says.

Many older millennials see working in nonelected government positions as a way forward, rather than running for office, Shames says. Others see activism as a path toward meaningful change. As a generation, millennials "consistently" participate in activist movements, according to 2019 academic research led by Nolan Higdon.

There's also an "ick" factor when it comes to fundraising and asking for money from friends, as well as special interest groups, Shames says. Most older millennials don't want to live in a space where they feel beholden, she says.

Why older millennials could eventually fill the 'void'

With these concerns, will older millennials' attitudes shift as they as they get more comfortable in adulthood beyond simply climbing the workforce ladder and achieving financial stability?

"We've delayed those major milestones in our lives, and I think running for public office has been the same situation," says Rick Loughery, chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. "But the next progression is running for office and taking over the politics in this country."

Those under 40 are more vocal about the values and actions they expect from institutions, particularly over the past few years around issues such as race, inequality and climate change.

"The next step is moving from talk to action," pollster Gerzema says. 

Some are already picking up the torch. Miranda Schubert, who is running for a city council in Tucson, Arizona, says she got into the race because she felt the need to change the status quo in a real and meaningful way.

"You can only read so many articles about millennials killing fill-in-the-blank before you're like, 'OK, we're working really hard. We're playing by the rules, and somehow it's not really working out,'" says Schubert, 36. To Schubert, it seems obvious to question and work toward changing a system that doesn't prioritize issues such as livable wages, equity, social justice and climate change.

"We're at an inflection point," Schubert says. "The situations that we're facing right now — racial and social justice, worker rights, climate change — all of these things are demanding substantive change and change that's for real, not performative, not just making another committee, or passing an act without any teeth," she says.

If older millennials don't show up, there's more of a likelihood that their values and outlooks could be left out of these conversations and future legislation. "I don't want to see us not have a powerful voice at the table," Loughery says.

'Time for a younger generation to lead'

More older millennial candidates could be on the way.

The Young Republican National Federation, for example, has seen a huge spike in interest in thirtysomethings wanting to run for office in recent years, Loughery says. Last year, the organization made more than 23 million voter contacts nationwide and helped elect more than 24 young Republicans to Congress and over 2,000 young Republicans into state legislatures.

Run for Something has a pipeline of 76,000 people who have signed up with the organization and expressed an interest in running for public office. This year alone, the organization has endorsed 192 candidates nationwide and expects that to grow to about 400 candidates in 2021, according to Litman. 

In some cases, Loughery says, seeing more millennials trickle into national politics is also helping inspire others to run, even on a local level. During the last election, Americans elected 31 millennials to Congress, including the first millennial in the Senate, 34-year-old Jon Ossoff.

But more changes are needed to open up the opportunity for more younger candidates to run — higher pay, for instance.

"We need to pay these [local political] positions more so that you can get working-class and not independently wealthy people serving," Litman says. "Ultimately, that changes the outcome of the policies that we get."

In the meantime, Loughery says it also comes down to older millennials realizing they need to invest in the future of the country. "There's a lot of older millennials who are finally stepping up and saying, 'Look, our country needs younger leaders, young professionals to step up and really take the reins,'" Loughery says.

"We cannot cede this territory to the boomers. They've had their time, it's now time for a younger generation to lead."

CNBC Make It will be publishing more stories in the Middle-Aged Millennials series around student loans, employment, wealth, diversity and health. If you're an older millennial (ages 33 to 40), share your story with us for a chance to be featured in a future installment.

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