Categorized | Workplace

Where are Tomorrow’s Leaders?

Posted on 21 May 2009

Political apathy on America’s college campuses.

For 22-year-old Katherine Bishop, it’s politics as usual. After graduating from James Madison University in May, the speech communication major took on her current job as deputy press secretary for Mike Easley, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate from North Carolina. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity,” she said. “I wanted to go the campaign route for a while.” Katherine operates out of the press office, fielding calls from the media and turning out press releases. Having passed up a higher paying offer as a media consultant, Katherine admits, “Sometimes, to be in a job that you have a passion for and enjoy, the trade-off is a low salary.” But not everyone shares her enthusiasm and commitment. “I know a lot of young people aren’t even registered to vote,” Bishop says. “They feel it doesn’t make a difference either way.”

A 30-Year Decline

Granted, during an election year, campaign offices around the country are busy work environments for college students and grads. But how widespread is the appeal after the electoral process simmers down and politicians take office? Do many young people today have career aspirations for public service? Fewer and fewer of them do, according to John Dervin. Dervin, 26, is a communications director for YouthVote 2000, a non-profit organization that claims to be the nation’s largest non-partisan coalition founded to involve young people in the political process. “We’re on a 30-year decline,” said Dervin. “Voter participation has been going down among 18- to 30-year-olds, mirroring a national trend. Fewer people are paying attention to politics.”

What’s fueling this detachment? “The main reason is that young folks don’t see themselves or their issues in political discourse,” explains Dervin. “Campaigners don’t mobilize the younger generations. If you’re 66 years old, people will carry you to the polls, but young people don’t receive the direct calls or mail, and television advertisements don’t carry messages for them.” Another source of students’ political disengagement may be their parents, according to Dervin. “Today’s youth were raised by parents who had lost faith in their government because of Watergate.”

Today’s students were raised by parents who lost faith in government.

To draw young people into political discourse, politicians may take a cue from Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush. “Young people didn’t register social security as a major concern until Governor Bush made it relevant to them,” Dervin says. “Bush said he wants to secure social security for younger workers as they get older.” Televised debates can also be helpful in increasing the number of youths who tune in to politics. “We’re trying to get one of the three presidential debates this October to be a youth debate. We’d like to have an experienced young person moderating. So far,” Dervin admits, “Gore has said yes.”

Education Is an Issue

Ultimately, it’s Generations X and Y that will be driving the 21st century economy. Politicians should take the time to understand their issues. For Bishop, public education is in drastic need of improvement. “I grew up in the system my entire life,” she said, “even through university. I’d like to see more money going there.” As a woman, Bishop says, “Family issues and abortion concern me. My candidate is pro-choice, which is important to me. Young people should get to know who their leaders are. Too often, they aren’t aware of what they stand for until their beliefs are in jeopardy and it hits home.”

Depending on the age group, of course, education issues may vary. “Right now, when politicians address education, they mean K-12,” said Dervin. “But, for 50 million 18 to 30-year-olds who are potential voters, it’s all about higher education, not vouchers. It’s not about class size, it’s about violence in schools and how to afford college.” The economy and the job climate are also a priority for today’s young people. “They will probably have to change jobs eight times in their lifetime,” said Dervin. “Every month another technology comes out that they have to keep up with. It’s a constant hustle and the level of stress is going up.”

Today’s youth culture values environmental issues, too, according to Dervin. “But Al Gore hasn’t made it relevant to young people yet,” he explains. “It’s about what makes it into your stump speech and where you put your resources. It’s more than free labor and a photo opportunity. We’re tired of being in the backdrop. Face us, we have some questions.”

Get Up, Get Involved

While the desire to make the world a better place is still strong, young adults seem to be re-channeling their energies in alternative ways. One need only look at the rise of volunteer efforts for an indication of this shift. “Volunteerism is at an all time high because young people think it is a better way to serve their communities,” Dervin claims.

Dick Morris, chief strategist and advisor to Bill Clinton during the 1996 campaign, agrees. The political commentator and founder of, an interactive Web site designed to give Internet users a voice on important public issues, says that “volunteering is the best way to get to know politics. One moves up quickly in a campaign. The need for manpower is so intense and the number of workers so limited that anyone can move up quickly with a basic level of skill and dedication. It’s like in the army. You can wait for years for a promotion in peacetime, but in wartime, battlefield promotions are easy to get.”

Internships are another way to get a window seat in the political world. During her junior year in college, Bishop interned during the summer months for Emily Couric, a democratic senatorial candidate from Virginia. “I assisted the campaign manager and was in the heat of things all the time,” she said. “I got a good grasp of the day-to-day operations of a campaign.”

If you’re considering a political career after college, the best way to get a foot in the door is to work for a local legislator like an assemblyman, senator, or congressman, according to Morris. “The best way to get a job is to approach them when they are running for office for the first time or for re-election,” he said. “The harder you work for them as a volunteer, the more likely it is that they will hire you onto their staffs once they win. Remember that over 30,000 people work for Congress. There are lots and lots of jobs.”

Beyond working in the media spotlight, there are other rewards for dedicating yourself to public-spirited work. “There are so many needs and not enough resources,” Dervin laments. “So many people think they are powerless. I realize how fortunate I was growing up. If you’re a privileged person you have a responsibility to make others realize the power within them and how they can improve their lives.”

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