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Younger, Better, Faster, Stronger – Rethinking the Native Voters of 2014

The most important age group to think about in the elections of 2014 and 2016, millennials.

I will admit a deep, dark secret. I am a baby boomer. (Or as my sons would say, I am old.) We boomers have had our way with politics, finances, the job market, pretty much everything. To use the favorite image, we are the pig in the python.

We, The Pig, entirely frame the conversation about healthcare. As a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report noted, “the number of baby boomers turning 65 is projected to grow in coming years from an average of about 7,300 per day in 2011 to more than 11,000 per day in 2029. As a result, the share of the population over the age of 65 is projected to increase from roughly 13 percent to almost 20 percent during this time.”

GAO’s warning: “Health care cost growth has slowed in recent years but it remains unclear whether this represents a temporary event related to the recent recession, a one-time shift reflecting structural changes in how care is delivered or in payment mechanisms, or a longer-term change to the U.S. health care system resulting from increased efficiency and coordination.”

So the bottom line is that the country needs to figure out a long-term strategy to pay for health care (and retirement) for a huge generation of people.

That brings me to the most important age group to think about in the elections of 2014 and 2016, millennials. This is the generation that “gets” to pay our baby boom tab. And to make it worse, this is the generation we’ve saddled with student loan debt that limit their earning power.

So you would think that millennials would be angry about debt — theirs and ours — and turn out in large numbers to vote in November. But will they? No one knows.

We know they should. The most common age in America right now is 22 years old. It’s a far more diverse generation than boomers. And, this generation already represents some 1 out of 3 workers — so as a voting bloc it could start to be the driver of public policy.

But early indications are the millennials are not voters. A recent study by Pew Research Center says one way to assess the level of political engagement among registered voters is to ask them how often they vote. “When asked this question in the 2010 Millennial survey, young people were least likely of any age group to say they always or almost always vote,” Pew found.

But what if that changes? That’s historically been the case because when people age they start families and careers. Then voting frequency increases.

We also know from research by Pew that millennials are less interested in politics than in solving problems. They want to see a plan that might work, rather than identifying with a party or even an ideology.

This is one reason why combining two Alaska candidates into one panel is so interesting to me. An independent and a Democrat running together matches a profile of what that next generation of politics could look like (even though neither Bill Walker nor Byron Mallott are young). This is the type of ticket that eschews the normal politics and looks to a new type of voter. Half of all millennials describe themselves as independents.

One person who has already picked up on why the fusion ticket matters is Forrest Dunbar. He is a Democrat and a millennial running for Congress in Alaska. He said Tuesday that “this is the kind of thing that will inspire more millennials to become more involved in electoral politics.”

Indian country, of course, skews even younger than the general population. The National Congress of American Indians reports 42 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are under age 25 (compared to 34 percent of U.S. population). And the Indian bubble are those young people just eligible to vote. We don’t have enough data to understand what’s happening with American Indians and Alaska Natives in this age group. But it doesn’t take long reading Facebook or Twitter to see similarities with other millennials. This generation is networked — and grew up that way. The world construct is about connections digitally. But you also see from them a readiness to lead. This surfaces with millennial ideas about music, viral challenges to do right, and a sense of purpose. If that translates into votes, well, look out.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.