Editor's Note: This article is the second in a series interviewing Utah’s top political leaders from both sides of the aisle about how their work at the Legislature impacts the lives of young Utahns.
SALT LAKE CITY — With the 2020 Utah State Legislature underway, it’s time for the state’s annual 45 days of intrigue, mayhem and late nights on Capitol Hill.
State lawmakers are largely drawn from older, more established generations, but the decisions they make during the session can affect young Utahns for years to come.
From 27-year-old state representatives to high school students walking out of class and into the streets, the next generations are finding ways to be heard. We sat down with Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, to talk about how young people shape politics in our state.
Adams began serving in the Utah Legislature in 2002. He is now the president of the state Senate.
This interview took place the Friday before the legislative session began and has been edited for length and clarity.
What impact have young Utahns made on the political process in recent years?
I’ve actually seen members of the Legislature enter when they're very young. I mean, I think about 25, we've seen some enter around that age. So that's, in my opinion, fairly young. In their opinion, maybe not too young. But you can have an impact by just getting involved.
I don't think it's any surprise that we've got the fastest birth rate; probably double the national average. We’ve got the youngest population in the United States. And because we have the youngest population, we have a lot of millennials. So everything we do is interactive, and they can have a big impact. They’re a big percent of our state population.
What do young people bring to politics that is different and distinct from the generations that came before them?
It's a change. Technology is doubling every 24 to 30 months. And we're trying to absorb that change. Millennials, it's a way of life to them.
And so as we try to deal in this changing environment that we're in, they bring a ton to try to help us make those changes. Probably some of the biggest priorities for me are maintaining the quality of life, maintaining the capacity for us to enjoy life and then be able to maintain an economy that allows people to have, you know, what I call upward mobility. In other words, that they can be better tomorrow than they are today. That's kind of the American dream.
So if you look at millennials — I was just in a meeting with a bunch of educators, both public and private educators and schools. And online education, at home pre-K, you know, we're talking about innovative IT programs. We're talking about remote learning, we're talking about different ways that millennials would rather learn and the quality of life that that brings.
It's really hard for some of us to grasp that, but their input has a significant impact.
How would you pitch young Utahns on the idea that it's important to pay attention and be involved in the political process?
Part of that comes with being affected by the decisions we make. And if you look around, the things we do affect everyone. I find it very interesting that when I'm talking to a group of high school kids, when I start talking about the age of the driver's license, they get really interested. When I'm talking about perhaps some other things like Social Security, they're not very interested at all.
And I think the way to involve them is to find things they're interested in and know that we touch almost everything they do. From there the technical aspects of where and how they work, to how they recreate and play.
So I mean, right now, I think a lot of millennials are probably really thrilled that Sundance is in town. And the fact that we have Sundance, and to get them involved in that, because it doesn't happen by chance. And it takes, you know, a little bit of effort to do that. I think things like that would be attractive to them.
You touched on the fact that we're such a young state. Nationally, young people are starting to trend a little more to the left politically. What do young people mean to the future of the Utah Republican Party? Are Utah’s youth different than the rest of the country?
Maybe. You know, I don't see that. I think when I was — maybe it's just an evolution of experiences, but when I went to the University of Utah, I think I was studying, you know, kind of broader opinions and trying to — I had different opinions.
But I think as you go through life those (views) tend to solidify. And I can't tell you whether people are going to solidify as Republican or Democrat.
We're seeing Uber Eats now. We're seeing Amazon. We're seeing all the new changes. And they’re kind of hard for a few of us that are older to comprehend. But it's the millennials who’ll give us that vision, to be able to understand that technology is doubling every 24 to 30 months, and they're accustomed to it. And they'll help some of us that are a little bit older that aren’t accustomed to those types of rapid changes, embrace those. They can be a lot of help.
Affordable housing is top of mind for a lot of young people today. How can the state lead out and help improve that situation?
Yeah, we're working on that. Sen. (Jake) Anderegg (R-Lehi) is really focused on it. And we're trying to drive costs down. So young people who understand the economy, which I think a lot of really brilliant, good students in different universities, they understand supply and demand. And if we can produce enough supply, the price comes down. And so that's probably something that we're focused on that they could help us understand how to do, but part of that comes in a regulatory process with the cities, municipalities.
So we actually passed a bill last year that asks the cities to look at changing some of their density requirements, changing some of their regulatory requirements, in an effort to try to bring more supply, and a different supply. Again, millennials can help us understand if we're on the right track or not, or help us facilitate that because you don't want to go the wrong direction. But many people right now don't want a 2-acre lot that they go mow; they want something different.
And to be able to have the right type of supply, I think, would help the affordability issue because if you add density, you can actually reduce costs. And if that's a product the people want, I think that's something that we can try to encourage cities to accommodate.
Student loan debt is something that a lot of millennials struggle with. You talked a little bit about alternative education models, is that one way that the state could be able to tackle that? What are some other ways?
There's a company called Stadler Rail and they're out of Switzerland. I think they're destined to be probably one of the biggest passenger rail manufacturers in the world, and they've opened up their North American headquarters here in Salt Lake City.
We've been to Switzerland to look at what they're doing, and experienced some of the educational differences that we have, but they allow high school students — maybe sophomores, but surely juniors and seniors — to come down and work there as an apprentice.
It's different than an internship because they pay them, they pay them a decent wage to be there. High school students. And they work there two days a week, maybe three, and then go to school the other two or three days. And so they earn money when they're going to school. And they develop technical skills that enable them to either use them at Stadler or go elsewhere.
After high school, Stadler will actually pay for their university tuition, and then they keep working there. So it eliminates or reduces student debt and actually gives somebody some income.
That apprentice model, I think Rep. (Francis) Gibson (R-Mapleton), the majority leader in the House, will be running a bill with that in it.
We aren't going to be able to continue to grow as a state if we don't do it smart, and smart growth would have to include some type of public transit and some type of transit-oriented, or at least smart land-use planning, to be able to allow some of the changing lifestyle and quality-of-life issues the next generations want.
And if the millennials don't get involved — we can guess what we think their lifestyle choices might be, but the only way you really know is if you get involved and be part of that process.
Learn more about Adams' current legislation, the committees he's on and more on his Utah Senate page.