BOSTON — As an institution, the Massachusetts Legislature historically rewards seniority and loyalty among its own ranks and responds more readily to entrenched interests and reliable voters in member districts.
So where exactly does that leave millennials, a generation loosely defined as having been born between 1980 and the late 1990s? A generation at once ambitious, socially conscious and technologically savvy, yet also skeptical of government’s ability to solve problems and less inclined to participate directly in local or state politics?
Five millennial senators — three Democrats and two Republicans — recently set out to bridge the generational divide and explore ways to engage others of their generation in the political process on Beacon Hill. They did so at the behest of Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg, a baby boomer who noted that while “politics is not on the front burner,” for most millennials, it’s essential they take a leading role in solving problems that will impact their lives for decades to come.
The group held 10 meetings around the state and one “Twitter town hall” before releasing its report this past week. Findings showed that more than half of millennials have little or no trust in major government institutions and further believe that corruption and lack of transparency contributes to social and economic inequality.
Sen. Eric Lesser, a 32-year-old Democrat from Longmeadow, said millennials are nonetheless eager to roll up their sleeves and solve problems.
“While there is a deep and pervasive sense of alienation and frustration with the political system, it would be a mistake to assume that means millennials are apathetic or disengaged,” he said.
Nearly every aspect of modern society has transformed dramatically since he was born in 1985, Lesser noted — except government.
“While our parents’ problems are our problems, our parents’ solutions aren’t our solutions,” said Sen. Joseph Boncore, 35, a Winthrop Democrat.
Among several recommendations in the report is creation of a permanent millennial caucus in the Legislature, consisting of lawmakers from both parties who would meet regularly to discuss issues of special concern to their generation — crushing student debt and unaffordable housing, for example, or the desire for greater transportation options.
Noting that millennials are more likely to interact with government online or through social media, the report also proposes a so-called “we the people” rule that would allow citizens to petition through the Legislature’s website for action on a particular issue. When a petition reaches a certain threshold, it could trigger a public hearing, the filing of legislation or a vote on an existing bill.
No new legislation is proposed in the report, but the lawmakers cited at least one pending bill that could address millennials’ suspicions about government secrecy by creating an open data standard requiring agencies to post all publicly available information.
Still, convincing millennials to take a more personal interest in often tedious machinations of local and state government is challenging, the lawmakers acknowledged.
Democratic Sen. Julian Cyr, 31, bemoaned that it was the “same old tired folks,” who constantly comprise the local boards and commissions that make key decisions in his Cape Cod district.
Nor is blind loyalty to party of much concern to most millennials.
“We have students graduating with a mountain of debt and then going out to an unaffordable housing market,” noted GOP Sen. Patrick O’Connor, 33, of Weymouth.
“Those aren’t Republican or Democratic issues,” he said.