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End political gridlock: Put a Millennial in charge

By Laura Sessions Stepp, Special to CNN
  • Laura Sessions Stepp: Today's young adults are open-minded and a cause for hope
  • Polls show millennials are more open than their elders to other people's opinions, she says
  • They place a higher value on fairness when it comes to hot-button social issues, she says
  • Stepp: 68% of them say abortion services should be available in local communities

Editor's note: Laura Sessions Stepp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, formerly with The Washington Post, who specializes in the coverage of young people. She has written two books: "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both" and "Our Last Best Shot: Guiding Our Children through Early Adolescence."

(CNN) -- In the midst of the recent debt-ceiling impasse in Congress, I wanted nothing more than to put the smartest 20-something legislative assistants together in a room and ask them to resolve it.

OK, I'm kidding. Sort of. But millennials, on the whole, possess traits that many members of Congress -- in particular freshmen Republicans in the House -- appear not to have, at least that they demonstrated during the recent debates. One is being comfortable arguing the pros and cons of a decision without threatening to take all your blocks, go home and never play again.

Stop by any watering hole on Capitol Hill after 7 p.m. and you'll find millennials vigorously arguing everything from the merits of education reform to Social Security, marshalling reason as well as emotion. In the minds of a 26- or 27-year-old, the fact that he or she might choose one path and a friend might choose another is grounds for a drink together after class or after work, not a standoff.

Of course, there are a handful of young hotheads in Congress. But almost all national polls show that most millennials are more open than their elders to other people's opinions. This is not, I believe, simply a function of how young they are. Baby boomers who came of age during the Vietnam War, some of whom were at each other's throats last week, will remember that in the late 1960s and early '70s, Young Republicans and Young Democrats didn't exactly meet for beer at the town saloon.

Those who opposed the war -- and lobbied university officials with phrases like "non-negotiable demands" -- didn't want much to do with their peers who supported the war or, worse, enlisted. War supporters, for their part, were known to spit on anti-war demonstrators. Civility was hard to spot, just as it was last week.

A recent national survey of adults suggests that today's 18- to 29-year-olds not only value civil debate, but also place a higher value on fairness when it comes to hot-button social issues.

The survey, compiled by the Public Religion Research Institute, showed millennials supporting equal rights for gays and lesbians in significantly larger proportions than older adults. Their concept of equity also applied to the most contentious issue of all: abortion.

When asked whether abortion was morally acceptable, 46% of them said yes, a proportion roughly the same as other age groups polled. Sixty percent of them said abortion should be legal, again mirroring older age groups.

On the question of access, however, the younger generation was markedly more generous. Sixty-eight percent of them -- 10% more than in the general population -- said abortion services should be available in local communities. Even those who thought abortion was immoral believed women who wanted to abort should be able to do so regardless of the kind of neighborhood they lived in.

Sarah Audelo, 27, a liberal youth activist who grew up in conservative Bakersfield, California, has debated the issue of abortion with her hometown friends for years, and comfortably so. One reason millennials are more open-minded than previous generations, she suggests, is that they are more diverse by nationality, race, living arrangements at home and sexual orientation.

"I have long conversations about abortion on Facebook," she says. "My friends can at least get to the place where they accept abortion if the mother's life is endangered. Or they may say, 'I might not have an abortion but I don't want to take away your access to a provider.'"

She continues, "We respond not as traditional issue-driven constituencies, but look for the nuances that reflect our own complex life experiences. We accept as fact that since people are different, not everyone will or should make the same choice when faced with an important life decision. Strident political alternatives come across as unrealistic and out of touch."

Another young professional in Washington says she and her friends also shy away from absolutist thinking. "Women shouldn't wait until the third trimester to have an abortion," she says emphatically, "but should we have a law banning it? No. Should every medical provider be obligated to perform abortions? Also, no."

In 2007 William A. Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, asked 20-somethings what they considered the top qualities necessary to be an adult. Four out of five rated becoming less self-oriented, and developing greater consideration for others, among the top four of 16 possible answers.

Will they be as generous in the future if the economy continues to decline? Will the level-headed among them become inspired to run for public office and, once there, offer fresh ideas on how to govern in a collaborative manner? We must hope so.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Laura Sessions Stepp.