This month’s off year elections sent one message to Washington that has been heard loud and clear. Voters expect Congress to focus on the economy, especially employment, and take decisive and affirmative steps to deal with both the causes and ravages of the greatest economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression. As the Obama administration considers a variety of new proposals to help bring down the unemployment rate, one key constituency is raising its voice and asking for a return on the investment it made in his presidency.
Members of the Millennial generation, born between 1982-2003, who were eligible to vote in 2008 went for Barack Obama over John McCain by a 2:1 margin and made up over 80% of the President’s winning margin. They continue to support his presidency and identify as Democrats by similar margins. A late October Pew survey indicates that Millennials identify as Democrats over Republicans by almost 20 percentage points (52% vs. 34%), well above the 8-point Democratic advantage among older generations. In the latest Research 2000 weekly tracking survey conducted for Daily Kos, 80% of Millennials had a favorable opinion of the president; only 14% of everyone in this generation viewed him unfavorably. This compares with a 55% vs. 39% favorable/unfavorable ratio among the entire electorate in both the Research 2000 survey and in a series of November surveys conducted by organizations ranging from ABC News and the Washington Post to Fox, although some other polls put the President’s job performance ratings closer to 50%.
But despite the clearly stronger support the President has among their generation, Millennials are increasingly restive about the lack of action in Congress to address the economic problems they face – both now and in the future.
Recent Pew research studies underline the major impact that the recession has had on individual Americans and their families. Thirteen percent of parents with grown children told Pew researchers that one of their adult sons or daughters had moved back home in the past year. Pew found that of all grown children living with their parents, 2 in 10 were full-time students, one-quarter were unemployed and about one-third had lived on their own before returning home. According to the census, 56 percent of men 18 to 24 years old and 48 percent of women were either still under the same roof as their parents or had moved back home.
The lack of jobs was particularly acute among adult members of the Millennial Generation (18-27 year olds), 61% of whom said that they or someone close to them was jobless recently. A clear plurality (46%) says that the “job situation” rather than rising prices (27%), problems in the financial markets (14%) and declining real estate values (7%) is their major economic worry.
As a result, the number one concern among Millennials is the state of the economy and the need for jobs, but they have a unique perspective on how to deal with this issue.
Millennials believe there is a clear link between education and employment and are increasingly concerned that the pathway through the educational system into the world of work is becoming increasingly more difficult and expensive to navigate. Last week, about one hundred of the nation’s top private sector and government leaders gathered for the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council also identified education as the nation’s top economic priority.
For Millennials, the problem is personal. A smaller share of 16-to-24-year-olds – 46 percent – is currently employed than at any time since the government began collecting that data in 1948. A job market with Depression-level youth unemployment (18.5%) and a wrenching transformation in the types of jobs America needs and produces makes the implicit bargain of education in return for future economic success harder for Millennials to believe in every day.
Recently Matt Segal, Executive Director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) and Founder and National Co-Chair of the “80 Million Strong for Young Americans Job Coalition” presented some ideas to the House Education and Labor Committee on what Congress could do to address this challenge. He advocated increased entrepreneurial resources be made available to youth; more access to public service careers through internships and loan forgiveness programs; and the creation of “mission critical” jobs in such fields as health care, cyber-security and the environment that would tap the unique talents of this generation. Since two-thirds of Millennials who graduate from a four-year college do so with over $20,000 in debt, debt, his testimony also urged immediate Senate approval of the student debt reform bill recently passed by the House.
There is more that can be done beyond these excellent recommendations. This summer, the President's Council of Economic Advisors released a report outlining the importance of community colleges in making America's workforce more competitive in the global economy. "We believe it's time to reform our community colleges so that they provide Americans of all ages a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future." The report urged Congress to pass House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larsen’s bill, The Community College Technology Access Act of 2009, in order to help meet President Obama’s goal of graduating five million more Americans from community colleges by 2020.
Millennials, like their GI Generation great grandparents in the 1930s, are facing economic challenges that caught them by surprise and for which no one prepared them. But Millennials aren’t looking for a handout or sympathy. Instead, in the “can do” spirit of their generation, they are organizing to overcome the challenges created for them by their elders. It’s time for the Democrats who control Congress to recognize these concerns and to act decisively on their behalf.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.