New Lobbying Group Targets Under-30 Crowd

June 13, 2011 - 3:12 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The 50 and older crowd has AARP, so why not a new group to advocate for those under age 30 and build their political muscle?

Our Time intends to increase its members' consumer power, entrepreneurship and influence as a voting bloc. The organization is drawing on a demographic that's coping with big student loan bills, a rough job market and gaps in health care coverage.

"We're working to unite us to both drive down costs in the private sector and also spark national conversation about our needs in the public sector," said 25-year-old Matthew Segal, Our Time's president.

Segal founded Our Time in March with Jarrett Moreno and James Grant, both 24, after seeing a need to burnish the role and influence of the millennial generation, the children of baby boomers who came of age in the new millennium. Boomers are classified as being born from 1946 to 1964; Gen Xers are considered to have birthdates from 1965 to 1980.

"You have to define yourself and get your own message out. You can't let someone else define you," Moreno said.

Some of Our Time's 310,000 members derive from Segal's college brainchild, the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), and from television producer Norman Lear's Declare Yourself youth voter campaign.

Segal was a freshman at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, when the campus was one of many that made national news because a number of students had to wait 10 hours to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Only two machines were provided at Kenyon's polling place and one was broken for several hours.

Segal said he found it interesting that there were groups focusing on mobilizing the youth, but that few organizations focused on protecting voters' rights.

He said he created SAVE "to focus on the voter access and voting rights side of elections," Segal said. It spread to more than 40 campuses and had 10,000 members.

Though Our Time is promoted as the next AARP, Our Time is careful not to make direct comparisons. Our Time notes that it hasn't lobbyists or created products such as AARP's life insurance, and has no plans to.

An AARP spokeswoman said the lobbying giant welcomes a younger addition.

"Our considerable experience has been that when Americans of all ages have a responsible conversation on important issues, we all have much more in common than some might think," Elly Spinweber said.

Segal said his group intends to strengthen the millennial voice partly by building a bigger independent voting bloc. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center shows that four out of 10 millennials view themselves as politically moderate.

Our Time recently began a petition campaign aimed at getting CNN Opinion Research Corp. to include larger numbers of young adults in surveys. The impetus was a poll about legalizing marijuana and same-sex marriage that did not have enough results from that age group to report results.

Within 10 hours, Our Time collected more than 2,500 signatures and received a statement from CNN's polling director, Keating Holland, saying the sample size of 18-to-34 year olds was too small for analysis.

Our Time is also acting as a broker for young entrepreneurs and investors through its latest business initiative, "Buy Young."

The organization, with five full-time employees and six part-timers in a small office down the street from the White House, is working with businesses owned by young people to give its members discounts on products and services. Our Time is creating a resource center for people who want to tap into the expertise of successful start-ups, and it plans to share inspirational stories of young entrepreneurs.

"Not everyone can relate to a Mark Zuckerberg," Moreno said, referring to the billionaire founder of Facebook. "But a lot of people can look at someone who started a shoe company and say, 'I can also start a shoe company.' If you show people someone they can relate to that's had success, then they can take it on themselves."

The organization is working with credit card companies and health insurers to provide services to empower young people and help them become financially literate.

"When we use our strength in numbers we can actually save money and drive down costs on a credit card or health care plan, but also tie in the needed educational aspects to those plans," Segal said.

Some of its 13 board members fund Our Time, but Segal said the long-term goal is to make the organization a sustainable nonprofit, including earning revenue through referral fees from business partners.

Board members include Ed Rensi, retired president and chief executive officer of McDonalds and Jeri Thomson, a former secretary of the Senate. Christie Hefner, the former CEO of Playboy Enterprises Inc., and former Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing are among Our Time's advisers.

"Every generation has been able to stand on the shoulders of the previous generation and build their own version of a better America," Thomson said. "This generation doesn't have that opportunity. We owe it to them to give them a bigger voice."

While majority of Our Time's outreach is through digital activism, the group expects to host campaigns around the country to promote the "Buy Young" initiative.

Noah Brown, a 23-year-old member from Arlington, Va., found Our Time appealing when he stumbled upon it, but he is uncertain it will accurately represent all youth.

"There's a lot of blue-collar people out there. We can't all work for think tanks," said Brown, a bartender looking for a job related to his economics degree. "Not all young people went to college and they need to be heard as well."

Gaining strength in numbers remains a challenge for Our Time. Its members represent less than 1 percent of the 52 million young people counted in the most recent census, and Our Time has only 2,000 followers each on Twitter and Facebook.

"The frustration has to become bigger than fear for movements or campaigns to develop," said Brandon West of Brooklyn, N.Y. The 26-year-old Our Time member and New York University graduate student is working on an online journal for nonprofit employees that he co-founded.

"We're starting to reach that breaking point," West said, "but it has to be an independent force working on those issues."

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Online:

Our Time: www.ourtime.org