Last year I wrote a story for The Washingtonian titled “Are Twentysomethings Expecting Too Much?” It’s a question that became a major theme in my new book, Mission Adulthood: How Today’s 20-Somethings Are Transforming Work, Love, and Life. The book profiles seven people who embody different characteristics of Generation Y—from an African-American woman who served in Iraq and bought her body armor off the Internet to a gay Latino man who is the first person in his family, out of 40 cousins, to attend college.
After writing this book, I have a clearer answer to the question I set out to explore in that magazine piece more than a year ago. And the answer is no, twentysomethings are not expecting too much. We—I was born in 1982—have gotten a bad rap as entitled and demanding. Yes, we have high expectations, but in other eras that would have been labeled as “striving.”
Alex Schriver, the now 24-year-old National Chairman of the College Republican National Committee (the position that launched Karl Rove’s career) embodies some of the best qualities of Gen. Y. Alex is open-minded, tech-savvy, and wants to change the world. He believes, as do I, that our generation is going to transform the workplace and politics, if the party elders listen.
Alex both bucks and falls neatly in line with generational stereotypes. Sometimes I wondered if Alex and I would ever make eye contact, or if I would just have to get used to interviewing him while he looked down at his phone. On the flip side, Alex is a traditionalist. He wants to get married and have kids—and within his peer group from high school and college, he’s the outlier as the single guy with no kids. In fact, Alex’s face lit up the day I told him that the median age for a first marriage in the District for a guy is 32. He isn’t so “behind” after all.
I followed Alex during a rather extraordinary year of his life—he went from working at a job that didn’t offer him health benefits to running the largest youth Republican organization in the country. In this way, Alex has a rags-to-riches story that will, no doubt, inspire anyone yearning to work their way into the DC political machine.
What follows is Alex’s chapter.
The Political Wunderkind (or The Next Karl Rove)
“Here: in camel hair sports coat and jeans,” Alex Schriver texts me as we try to find each other in a Starbucks on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It is a sunny, brisk winter day in February 2011. When we succeed, then 22 year-old Alex shakes my hand firmly and introduces himself by his first and last name. He speaks with a light Southern drawl. It’s the type of greeting that seems both genuine and like he’s done it a thousand times before. Alex has mastered the art form that’s the hallmark of all good politicians—making a good first impression. The warm smile, the dapper blazer, the whole persona—it just works. It is no accident that Alex comes off well. He is running to be the chairman of the College Republican National Committee (CRNC), the position Karl Rove, famously dubbed “Bush’s brain,” held in the 1970s, which many say launched his career as the most successful political operative of his generation. Alex too hopes to ascend the CNRC and springboard into a political career.
Through its network of 1,800 campuses and 250,000 members, the CNRC trains, mobilizes, and advocates for Republican candidates. It also has a budget of millions of dollars that Alex could one day be responsible for overseeing. In July 2011, delegates from all fifty states will vote to determine who will become the next chairman of an organization considered “the fastest growing sector” of Republican Party activists, not to mention whose term will overlap with the 2012 presidential election. Becoming chairman would give Alex a killer Rolodex filled with the next generation of Republican politicians and operatives. In ten years, Alex told me, he’ll know every prominent Republican state party staffer, lawyer, and politician in practically every state. To put it another way, Alex is an avatar for the I-can-do-anything-twentysomething. He has unabashed ambition at a young age, putting him in line with a segment of his generation but certainly not everyone.
“I set the bar high for myself, “Alex said. “I want to be successful professionally.” But what differentiates Alex from the garden-variety twentysomethings with big goals, a lot of drive, and the desire to be famous, is that he is after more than visibility and a lot of Facebook friends, although he has that (to date: 3,713). “Success doesn’t just mean being good at my job,” Alex has told me many times. “I want to be successful in my relationships and in my faith,” he said. But having a girlfriend right now would be next to impossible. There are so many other things competing for his attention, namely one Blackberry and one iPhone and the hundreds of e-mails, texts, and BBMs that come pouring in every day. This is the tradeoff Alex has made at this point in his life as he tries to rise to the top of a field before he turns 25: putting his personal life on hold. “I don’t even have time to pick up my dry cleaning,” Alex said, “let alone a girlfriend.”
Alex is a cross between Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee. He’s got the folksy I-want-have-a-beer with you persona of Huckabee coupled with the smooth, polished side of Jeb Bush, minus the political lineage. His bio-data certainly aren’t exotic for a card-carrying member of the Republican party: white and male; raised in the Bible Belt of Tennessee; degree in Political Science from Auburn University in Alabama; president of his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta; active member of The Church of the Highlands, the largest evangelical church in the state of Alabama. When Alex was State Chairman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama, he doubled the number of chapters in the state and brought the organization into the 21st century with a social media program and a new website. But Alex doesn’t have an ego about his accomplishments. In the year I spent interviewing him, he was always hesitant to brag or take credit for things. He’s exceedingly polite, charming, and chivalrous. Every time we met, Alex held the door for me and shook my hand, even after our half- dozen coffees. I never heard him use a four-letter world. In the age of sexting, Alex is a dying breed: a gentleman.
Alex was raised in Franklin, Tennessee, an affluent suburb of Nashville. The Schrivers were upper-middle class, the kind of family that went on vacations to the Bahamas but didn’t fly first class or stay at five-star hotels. Alex took out a small loan to go to college, but not to cover tuition. The loan was to pay for all of his extracurricular activities—traveling to different Republican conventions and paying fraternity dues. Alex is the first person in his family to put himself in the political spotlight. “They are all Republicans, but no one is publicly political,” Alex told me.
When Alex was 17, in 2005, his parents got divorced. His parents broke the news to him one night after he came home from a date. Alex said he accepted the separation and tried to move on. That’s Alex’s approach to life: don’t linger on the bad stuff. His other guiding principle was to forge independence, and early. While Alex was growing up, his parents never saw a transcript. He bucks the stereotype of the Gen Y kid who can’t cut the umbilical cord. There’s a rugged, almost Ayn Rand-inspired individualism about Alex. Being self-sufficient is, perhaps, the most important goal for Alex right now. “No one wants to have to graduate and move back in with their parents,” Alex told me. Backpedaling a bit, he added, “I mean, there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s just so important to your sense of self-worth and independence to be able to support yourself and live on your own.” Of course, Alex has the luxury of this viewpoint. If he couldn’t make rent one month, his parents could chip in.
Alex hasn’t had to make that phone call (yet). Even on his measly starting salary—less than $30,000, which he earns working for a Republican fundraising and lobbying firm (campaigning is his after-hours job)—Alex pays his own bills and rent. “I consider myself an adult on the grounds that I’m very independent. Yes, I’m close with my parents, but I was not a leashed child. I have a lot of friends in college and here in Washington, who have a natural instinct to say that ‘I got a parking ticket, I’m going to call my mom,’ or ‘I don’t know how to register for my driver’s license, I’m going to call my dad.’ I don’t operate like that. But if you define an adult as someone who has a spouse, a mortgage, and a kid, then there aren’t many adults among my generation here in Washington, DC,” Alex said.
Alex’s Mission: Carving Out a Name for Himself in National Politics
At first glance, Alex doesn’t seem like most other members of the college class of 2010, many of whom couldn’t find jobs and had to move back home with their parents. In a stark contrast to the unemployed and drifting twentysomething, Alex is running to be the chairman of a very large, influential political organization. In many other ways, however, Alex is representative of a 22 year-old newly minted graduate. The CNRC is a side gig to his day job, putting him in the bracket with most every other early twentysomethings toiling in an entry-level job. But twentysomethings like Alex also pursue what they really want to do, whether it’s photography or writing or web design, on evenings and weekends, part of the emergent trend of after-hours jobs for this generation. And like any recent college graduate, Alex is figuring how to make his way in the world. Washington, DC, is the major leagues for anyone forging a career in politics and a big adjustment for Alex. He’s not at Auburn, living on the cloistered campus that had one main street. So will he adjust, or pack his bags and head back to Alabama?
“I’m always someone who wants to be ahead.”
Alex’s political resume reads like someone who is far older than 22. In March 2009, over a year before Alex moved to Washington, DC, to work for a Republican fundraising firm, Bradley Byrne came to speak at Auburn University. According to Alex, “He hit on a lot of things I really believe in, and I turned to my friend and said, ‘This guy is going to run for governor.’” Alex was prescient. When Byrne announced his candidacy, it took Alex all of five minutes to make a phone call and get connected with the campaign. A few days later, he started an unpaid internship. He was so moved and excited by Byrne that he took a semester off of school to work on his campaign. Alex became the deputy political director for Bradley Byrne’s gubernatorial campaign in Alabama, overseeing seven field reps, all of whom were older than Alex. Byrne, however, lost in the 2010 primary to Robert Bentley, the current governor of Alabama, so Alex went back to Auburn to finish his course requirements and get his diploma.
Alex is certainly no aimless twentysomething, putting him in a different category than many who wonder, post-college, “What should I do with my life?” Most recent grads ponder this question during a six-month backpacking trip across South America or while working at a restaurant waiting for something better to come along. Alex, though, is different. Even if he harbored some doubts about which way to turn—stay in Alabama or move to DC—the what-should-I-do-with-my-life question was not one Alex spent a lot of time mulling.
“I’m always someone who wants to be ahead,” Alex told me when I asked him how he’d made a name for himself in Republican politics before he could even legally drink. He’s friendly with many members of the Alabama state legislature, including the speaker of the house and president pro tempore. “At 18, I wanted to do what people at 22 were doing. I was elected president of my fraternity, Delta Tau Delta, when I was a sophomore, and most fraternity presidents are seniors. I went to college when I was 17.” Alex cites birth order as the explanation for his drive. “I was the youngest of three kids, so there was always someone to catch up to.” But there’s something else propelling Alex. He has imbibed a certain generational attitude about the standards of achievement. “It used to be enough to graduate from college, get married, get a job, and that was enough to be successful. Now I feel like—and maybe I’m just imposing my own idea—you don’t want to have any job. You want to make a difference,” Alex told me. He thinks that kind of success is more attainable today, a common belief for a generation that has seen people like Justin Bieber become almost instant international sensations because of one YouTube video. The equivalent of that in Alex’s sphere, he says, “You can just make business cards and slap up a website and voilà, you’re a political consultant.” Of course, making business cards and slapping up a website doesn’t automatically make someone a successful political consultant, but Alex hits on a prevalent generational attitude: that the doors to success seem wide open if you wield your social network correctly.
“I live under the pressure of ‘Don’t mess up because if I do, I’ll have 3,700 Facebook friends watching.’ Everything today is magnified.”
Alex spends every weekend on a plane. Part of his campaign strategy is to meet face-to-face with as many of the 50 state chairs before the election in July 2011. The state chairs are critical to Alex’s election strategy—they appoint the delegates and he says the delegates usually follow the lead of the chairperson. The process is like going on fifty political first dates. And like a lot of dates, there’s a script. Alex said, “I ask them, ‘How are things going in your state? How are the college Republicans?’ Then we have a conversation about that and I say, ‘I’d like to have your support.’”
While another candidate might just, say, try and arrange 30 or so video Skype chats, Alex is taking this election as seriously as if he were running for the U.S. Congress. He is on the campaign trail—constantly. Luckily, soliciting favors isn’t something that makes Alex uncomfortable. “I have a friend who served on the national fraternity board with me a few years ago, and someone asked him why he didn’t run for office and his answer really took me. He said, ‘I don’t want to have to ask all my friends for a thousand dollars.’ [In this job] you are asking your friends, family, and professional contacts for money. If the fundraising process made me uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be very good at my job,” Alex said with a half-smile. But he concedes that it’s not always easy. “You have to be prepared for a meeting with a potential donor where that person says, ‘I’d love to talk, but I’m not going to give you any money.’” When that happens, Alex doesn’t miss a beat. “You say, ‘Absolutely, I just wanted to update you on the campaign and the progress we are making and if you change your mind, I’d be happy to talk about it.’”