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The Kids Aren’t Alright

October 4, 2012


The debate season is upon us, and the Presidential election is fast approaching ; pundits, journalists and pollsters are all girding themselves for the month-long gauntlet of unending coverage, spin and speculation.  Amidst all this frenzy, one group remains unmoved. Regardless of who wins, many Millenials will be underwhelmed by the outcome, and their prospects are unlikely to improve.

Millenials have grown up in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression;  unemployment was surging to double digits and economic growth ground to a halt just as they were graduating and looking for their first jobs. Fed up with a Bush Administration that had overseen the onset of the crisis, and ballooned the federal debt, Millenials were pivotal in sweeping Barack Obama to victory, breaking his way 52 to 44 percent. He campaigned on a message of change, making it one of the cornerstones of his campaign. He spoke to the youth who felt that politics were dysfunctional, and a new way of doing things was needed. In a 2008 speech, he effectively spoke to this dissatisfaction with politics, saying:  Washington is broken. My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works

Scenes of euphoria abounded when he won the election in November, and young people fostered hope that they had helped usher in a new era of politics, and that the recession would soon be a distant memory.

Almost four years later, the day after the first Presidential debate, the picture looks just as bleak for Millenials; disillusionment and  weary resignation have replaced hope and change.In 2009 just before he took office, Obama, correctly, knocked the Bush Administration for ballooning the debt and deficit, and promised to:

 cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term in office.  This will not be easy.  It will require us to make difficult decisions and face challenges we’ve long neglected.  But I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay — and that means taking responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control.

We have just finished the fourth consecutive fiscal year of budget deficits in excess of $1 trillion. As this chart from the Federal Reserve shows, debt per capita has  continued to surge under the Obama Administraton  at an even faster pace than under profligate President Bush. Debt per person is now almost $50,000 per person, dashing Millenials’ hopes that he would make good on his campaign promise reduce the future debt burdens on young people

Screen Shot 2012-10-01 at 11.34.53 PM.pngThe exorbitant debt hanging over the economic future of young people would be bad enough on its own, but more bad economic news pours in both domestically and from abroad. The European countries that were pointed to so often as a model by the Obama administration are suffering through an even more serious economic crisis. Elevated levels of government spending and extensive social safety nets, both pursued by the Obama Adminstration in its first four years, have done little to alleviate the burden on European youth, in Spain and Greece, youth unemployment has skyrocketed to over 50% at the same time that those countries are being forced to  cut spending and raise taxes to return to a fiscally sustainable path .

While much lower than Europe, youth unemployment in the US remains stubbornly high, meaning many young people struggle to even find a job and attain financial independence, much less build up the wealth that will eventually be required to pay the ever-increasing public debt.

In search of  increasingly elusive jobs, more and more Millenials are returning to higher education to boost their credentials or wait out the depressed job market. As a result, student loan debt has skyrocketed since the onset of the recession; total student loan debt recently eclipsed the $1 trillion mark, causing many economist and policy experts to view it as the next bubble set to burst. The Obama administration’s  increased focus on making higher education ‘more accessible’ through increased federal aid and grants has coincided with a surge in tuition, but to this point, it not done anything to significantly lower the youth unemployment rate. The result is that  many young people saddled with debt and unable to find a job.

All of this would seem to suggest that young people, disappointed with the economic performance under the Obama Administration and struggling to find work to pay of their high debts, would flock to Mitt Romney and the Republican party in the hopes that they could do a marginally better job at turning the economy around. But due to the nature of our political system, Millenials are forced to take the whole package that comes with each candidate; even if they believe Romney could do a better job of handling the economy, many are turned off by the Republican Party’s increasingly out-of-touch stance on social issues.

While he hasn’t come out in favor of drug legalization and an end to the drug war that places millions of non-violent offenders in prison and costs billions of dollars a year, Obama is certainly more open to a detente in the drug war, of leaving legalization or decriminalization to the states and focusing more on treatment rather than harsh jail sentences. This is in keeping with trends in public opinion. As the table to the left shows, Republicans are far out of step with 18 to 29 year olds on the issue of marijuana legalization: 61 % of this age group think it should be legalized, while only 29% of Republicans feel the same way.

Even more striking is the breakdown of views on gay marriage by age. ‘Defense of marriage’ has been one of the main planks of the Republican platform in terms of social issues, but just as with marijuana legalization and the drug war, Republicans find themselves on the wrong side of  a sea change in public opinion, led by Millenials, 63% of whom favor legalizing some form of same-sex marriage. As the Millenials age, and future generations more supportive of same-sex marriage replace the older generations, Republicans will find themselves on the wrong side of the issue, as they will with many of the social policy issues.

So where is a Millenial to turn? They have to choose between their dissatisfaction with Obama’s economic record and Romney’s unpalatable stance on so many social issues. In an age where they have been given increased access to customization and choice in so many aspects of their lives, like the things they watch through services like Netflix and Hulu as opposed to basic cable, their choices in politics are depressingly inflexible and one-size-fits-all.  Who is there to be excited about? Hope and change has been tried already with disappointing results, and Mitt Romney is certainly not going to inspire any kind of explosion of youthful fervor and hope. Perhaps this is why youth engagement s down so sharply since the last election. Millenials are dissatisfied, or at the least, uninspired by the two candidates that were on the debate stage last night. Young people are much less likely than previous generations to identify as belonging to either party, preferring to self-identify as independent; at least in part because the vast majority of them find areas where they disagree with the major parties’ stances. Political leanings or views aside, Millenials want more choices, more ability to selectively choose a candidate whose views actually align with theirs, instead of just choosing the lesser of two evils between the two major parties as has been done for so long.



From → Economics, Politics

  1. liana permalink

    The dilemna of the voting public (and Millenials, in particular,) is well-stated.

    In particular, the author , chughes(ual) has noted that while increased access to higher education is laudible, in these economic times, it is only putting off the inevitable trouble — inability of the well-educated to find a job… compounded by increased debt !

    Likewise,many of the Obama goals are laudible, however, without large-scale economic planning and foresight, they have generated “Big Government Gone Wild “.

    Without question, PRIORITY ONE is increasing employment and decreasing debt.

    As a 50-something, and long-time Republican, (although libertarian at heart) I became disillusioned with the entire system a good 15-20 years ago… and for some of the same reasons. Likewise, considered myself an independent. — Where was the candidate who was fiscally conservative ? strong on national defense? and yet , at the very least, moderately progressive, on social issues??

    (Possibly, it is time for a new Party … a crisis-induced challenge to the the Millenials ??.


    I watched the debates, and was impressed with Romney. he is strong on the economy, education, and national defense, combined with the leadership ability to bring opposing sides together AND the business/government acumen to make things work!

    The economy is definitely ‘broke” and needs fixing. If the car isn’t running, it doesn’t matter what direction you want to go on social issues… you won’t be going anywhere .
    Priority one.. get the car fixed, and then you can decide what direction you will take it.

    …and the cool thing about Romney, is that he doesn’t insist on driving !! He is more than willing to turn many of the issues over to the individual states, where the voices of the individual constituents will have more clout !

    Regardless of the degree of disillusionment or dissatisfaction with ‘the way things are” … I urge each and every one of the Millenials… and each and every voter , regardless of age … to use their vote to elect
    ROMNEY… get thie economy back on track … … but THEN… we, as the freedom-loving Americans we are , can decide which way to steer… full-speed ahead !!

    (by the way… the AMERICAN party … might be a good name….)

  2. As much as I disagree with the Republican stance on social issues – you are right we have to get the economy back on track first.

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