In 2004, David Burstein was just another 16-year-old listening to election results from the comfort of his couch. As he listened to the votes come in, he remembered NBC anchor Brian Williams focusing on the low turnout from young voters. And even though Mr. Burstein himself wasn’t yet old enough to cast a ballot, he was frustrated.
“I was upset more people hadn’t turned out,” Mr. Burstein, now 24, said during a Friday evening talk at Alex’s Place at the YMCA. The event was the first of the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force’s Project Next speaker series. Mr. Burstein is the author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World and the director of two short documentary films: 18 in ‘08 and Up to Us. The latter was screened on Friday.
The election spurred Mr. Burstein to action, but without voting power, financial clout or connections, he opted for the next best thing — telling the story of his generation in an attempt to understand why they were underrepresented at the voting booth.
That thought process sparked the creation of 18 in ‘08, which, though just over a half-hour long, took more than three years to make. Mr. Burstein cold-called and e-mailed hundreds of Congressmen asking them for an audience, and traveled the country to talk with young voters and soon-to-be voters like himself. By 2007, the voting bloc was receiving a great deal of attention, and Mr. Burstein, with his nascent film, became a direct spokesperson.
But looking back, he said on Friday, “It really is a story that is fairly unremarkable.” All he had needed was an idea, a computer and a camera.
The leveling of the playing field via technology is a crucial uniting feature for the millennial generation, which is an estimated 80 million strong (polling outlets define the generation as those born between those born between 1977 and 1995). By 2020, Mr. Burstein said, they will be approximately a third of the electorate and half of the workforce.
“It’s kind of a force that’s hard to ignore,” he said.
Mr. Burstein pointed out that it is also one that is misunderstood. He had recently come from a debate in which his opponent argued that millennials are a narcissistic generation.
Rather, Mr. Burstein said, millennials are seeking to improve their world, using a blend of pragmatism and idealism. They are by and large optimistic about the future, he said, despite coming of age in a post-9/11 world and a global recession.
“We have never seen our world at its best, which makes us want to make it better,” he said, citing the Columbine school shooting as a pivotal moment from his own life when he realized that not only was there “real and present danger” in the world, but also “people who need help.”
And systems that need help. Mr. Burstein’s next initiative is an effort to bring about more change in the political environment. The project, Run For America, is an embodiment of the pragmatic idealism he sees in millennials, seeking to help “outside the box” candidates not driven by special interests into office.
Project Next coordinator Tiffany Smalley asked Mr. Burstein if he envisioned a post-partisanship future, noting that many millennials don’t formally align with a particular party.
Mr. Burstein said he doubted that political parties would disappear entirely, but that there was a nevertheless a need for new faces on Capitol Hill. The current Congress, he said, is the oldest in the nation’s history. It is also the most partisan.
“The system doesn’t encourage young people to run for office,” he said. “Who wants to go into a bad system?” He said Run For America was not about party loyalty but rather the broader perspective of solving problems.
“We don’t want to move the box to the left or to the right,” he said. “We want to throw the box up in the air and see where it lands.”
Bunch of Grapes owner Dawn Braasch asked Mr. Burstein if he had ever considered running for office himself.
“I used to want to,” Mr. Burstein said. But through his filmmaking, he said, he had learned the power of narrative. And continuing to tell the millennial story was the best investment of his time.
“[The] story drives how all of us think,” he said.
David Burstein’s short film Up to Us can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/54032826.
For more information about the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force and Project Next, contact Theresa Manning or Tiffany Smalley at 508-696-5304.