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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Globalization

Restoring America’s International Standing: Millennials and Gen Zers as the Global Generations


As nationalist and xenophobic pressures mount, it’s on America’s youth—as voters and future diplomats—to revive the institutions and ethos that made the United States a source of international stability and cohesion. In short, Millennials and Gen Zers must become the Global Generations.

As future stewards of the nation’s international standing, young Americans must take on two responsibilities: (1) steer the nation’s foreign policy and public opinion away from an “America First” mindset and (2) expand political support for a global presence through informal exchange and the power of the ballot.

The first responsibility—reorienting America’s foreign policy—has typically fallen on the shoulders of young Americans. Youth have long had an outsized role in advancing the nation’s foreign policy through government-based service. Soldiers, volunteers, and diplomats tend to be young idealists willing to forgo the comforts of home to defend democratic principles. In 2015, two-thirds of Department of Defense active-duty military personnel were under the age of 30. Similarly, the average Peace Corps volunteer is just 28 years old. The trend is evident in the Foreign Service, as well; diplomats entering the service were just 32 years old, per data from 2012.

Millennials and Gen Zers will have to overcome political pushback to influence foreign policy. By undermining and underfunding internationally engaged agencies, the executive branch has curtailed opportunities for young people to get involved in international affairs. Isolationists have also gained a major presence in Congress. Even a cursory review of foreign aid and international relief bills pending in Congress demonstrates the strength of insularity. GovTrack, which collects data on the federal government, gives the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act just a 36 percent chance of passing the US Senate. It’s even less likely—just 3 percent odds—that the Senate will sign off on the Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act. And, while a wave election may be on the horizon, its unlikely that the tide will wash out the damage that’s already by done by isolationist influence.

Consider the decline in applications to the Foreign Service. When compared to June 2016, the number of Foreign Service entry exams taken fell by 26 percent. As applications have dwindled, so has the total number of Foreign Service employees. In June of 2016, nearly 14,000 worked in the service. The most recent HR report shows an employment drop to just 13,700.

Budget changes have also diminished the number of young people serving in the military. A count of the armed forces in 2015 recorded just 1.3 million active-duty troops, the smallest force since 2001. What’s more, our armed forces have aged as they’ve shrunk: the average officer and enlistee were 32 and 25, respectively, in 1973; in 2015, the average age jumped to 35 for officers and 27 for enlistees.

Despite budget cuts and policy changes, high Peace Corps application rates suggest that young Americans remain eager to serve abroad. There were 10,131 applications to the Corps in 2010. Comparatively, in 2017, more than 20,935 people applied. It’s true that a streamlining of the Corps’ application, which cut the average time to complete an application from eight hours to one, deserves some credit for the spike. However, application rates have continued to increase since this change. Continued interest in the Corps evidences the desire of young people to influence foreign policy through formal means.

Young diplomats, soldiers, and volunteers are uniquely situated to secure the moniker of Global Generations. These officials—recognized domestically and internationally as representatives of US foreign policy—can push for increased funding for internationally focused agencies and programs; participation in international pacts such as trade deals and climate accords; and more active membership in international organizations such as the UNHCR, NATO, and WTO. By advocating for these three stances within their formal capacities, young people will restore America’s seat at the international table it helped create.

Millennials and Gen Zers planning to stay in the private or nonprofit sectors can address their generations’ second responsibility: rallying public support for restoring America’s injured international reputation. Young Americans should continue to travel broadly, support the international exchange of goods and information, and back candidates seeking to shift foreign policy toward collaboration and participation.

Informal international exchange can start in the classroom. Millennials are eager to meet their global counterparts through study abroad programs. In the 2015-16 school year, 325,339 American students studied abroad. The total number of participating students has tripled in the past two decades, further indicating young Americans’ global mindset.

Young Americans need to serve as ambassadors of international participation within their own communities, as well. Foreign policy is a partisan dividing issue. Party affiliation and geography increasingly explain individuals’ feelings about U.S. international participation. Restoring America’s role in promoting international stability requires more political unity at home. Millennials and Gen Zers can spark that shift by bringing their foreign policies views to their hometowns as well as to the ballot box.

Young voters have the chance to alter the course of the 2018 midterm elections and, accordingly, start the long process of removing isolationist forces in government. Millennials and Gen Zers are the most interconnected generations the world has seen. The candidates they vote for ought to stand for the values inherent to that connectedness: embracing globalization and re-engaging the international community. In 2016, 62 million Millennials were eligible to vote, just 8 million shy of the number of eligible Baby Boomers. Come 2018, Millennials and Gen Zers will comprise an even larger segment of possible voters.

To influence foreign policy, young Americans must vote and back candidates that support American participation in global affairs. A large youth vote could flip the Senate to a Democratic majority. Such a shift could lead to a change in United States foreign relations given the Senate’s ability to confirm nominations for ambassadors, approve treaties, and launch investigations—for example, into US agencies’ responses to international efforts to manipulate the 2016 election.

The Greatest Generation met its responsibility to support the nation’s international standing through sacrifice, service, and civic engagement. For Millennials and Gen Zers to become the Global Generations they, too, must sacrifice, serve, and engage civically. America’s institutions need an influx of internationally-minded individuals and a groundswell of support for globally-focused policies, young people can meet those needs.



Kevin Frazier is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and a JD candidate at the University of California-Berkeley. Originally from Oregon, Kevin previously worked for Governor Kate Brown and Google. His articles on inter-generational inequality and the convergence of technology and democracy have appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Taipei Times.



Mason Ji is a JD candidate at Harvard Law School, and holds degrees from the University of Oxford and Yale University in global affairs and public policy. He is a former delegate to the United Nations and a former White House Ambassador for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. His research is concerned with US-China relations and the changing nature of global governance and diplomacy.



Edited by Michael Auslen.

Photo: Kyle Glenn on Unsplash.