The average age of a member of Congress is 58 years old, but that hasn’t dissuaded two millennial women, Sara Jacobs in California’s 49th District, and Abby Finkenauer in Iowa’s 1st District, from running for Congress this year.
Both 28 years old, if elected, Jacobs and Finkenauer would be the youngest members of Congress. They are running to bring fresh leadership to Washington at a time when most Americans distrust Congress.
There is no better generation to represent Americans who feel left behind than millennials. Americans ages 19-35 are the first generation in modern memory to be worse off than their parents. The American promise that “if you work hard [and] play by the rules, you can have a good life,” as Finkenauer says in her campaign announcement video, has proven out of reach for more and more Iowans—and this is particularly true for young people.
Millennials have come of age in the shadow of the global financial crisis and when an increasing number of tasks are being automated. These changes have meant millennials make less than previous generations. In 2013, the median income of millennials was 43% lower than that of Generation Xers in 1995, a year when Gen X was at a similar point in development.
Compounding lower incomes is rising student debt. Students who graduated in 2016 now face an average of $37,712 in student debt.
While addressing student debt, rising inequality, and creating good paying jobs has been rhetoric in Washington for some time, for Finkenauer and Jacobs, these matters are personal.
The child of a retired Union Pipefitter Welder and Dubuque community school worker, Finkenauer and her four siblings were the first generation of college graduates in her family. After four years serving as a state legislator in Iowa, Finkenauer still has $15,000 in student debt.
Finkenauer has also seen the impact of brain drain in her community. “We deserve a member of Congress who understands what it’s like for new graduates to have to move to Chicago or Denver or Minneapolis—not because they want to move away from home—but because they can’t find the good paying jobs right here in Iowa.”
For Jacobs, who is running in the district where Republican Congressman Darrell Issa recently announced his retirement, people’s frustration with the status quo has presented an opportunity. Her district is one of the most likely to swing left in the country. Issa’s retirement decision demonstrated that he had seen “the writing on the wall,” Jacobs said in a phone interview. “He’s out of step with what people are looking for in a representative.”
Like Finkenauer, Jacobs could represent her community’s interests in Congress while also being the voice of a generation mostly absent from Congress today. She has witnessed the impact of growing inequality in her district, where the prospects of children who attend the best public schools are different than those of children growing up in less affluent areas. “We have incredible disparity in the district. I’m focused on closing that opportunity gap,” Jacobs said in a television interview, “I grew up in Del Mar and I went to a great public school, but you shouldn’t have to have grown up in Del Mar to go to a good public school.”
Jacobs feels Congress is not taking seriously enough the challenges and opportunities presented by technology. She was previously the Director of Project Connect, which is focused on eliminating the digital divide in education and increasing opportunity for students globally. There, she realized that “we’re at this inflection point [in technological and economic change]. If we don’t fix the problems of inequality now, then they’re going to be so baked into the future system that they will be much harder to solve.”
“We’re in the beginning of setting the foundations of what future systems will be, and government has abdicated its leadership,” Jacobs said. As a policymaker for the US State Department and United Nations, she attended conferences where “people were looking for leadership, asking for guidance, and there was no one there to give it because we don’t have anyone in government who really understands these things.”
Rather than losing hope, Finkenauer and Jacobs have decided to do something. Millennials “have to live with the consequences of policy decisions longer than almost anybody else,” Jacobs said, and their interests should be represented in Congress.
As voters head to the polls this primary season, they should think twice before writing off the experiences of these relative newcomers. While other primary candidates may have lived longer, Jacobs and Finkenauer may be just the leaders our challenging times demand.