The Obama administration celebrated the anniversary of the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or economic stimulus, by pointing out the gradual recovery of the United States economy has resulted in “saving or creating two million jobs.” But young Americans continue to bear the brunt of what is still America’s worst recession since the Great Depression.
From December 2008 to December 2009, the employment of 16-24 year olds in the U.S. fell by 1.78 million, or a third of the total estimated drop in employment of 5.4 million. Only 41% of Millennials are working full time, a drop of 9 percentage points in the last few years, even as the proportion of older workers employed full time remained fairly stable.
The experience with hard times of Millennials, born 1982-2003, is one of the main reasons why they strongly support the classic liberal solution of effective government intervention in the economy. Recent Pew research, for example, indicates, that far more than older generations, a large majority of Millennials (71%) agrees that the government should guarantee that every citizen has enough to eat and a place to sleep. Millennials are also the only generation in which a majority (54%) disagrees with the contention that if something is run by the government it is usually inefficient and wasteful and a plurality (49%) rejects the belief that the federal government controls too much of our daily lives.
A recent study by UCLA professor Paola Giuliano, and her colleague Antonio Spilimbergo, clearly documents the impact of recessions on people who are between 18 and 25, “during which most beliefs on how society and the economy work are formed.” Their research found that individuals who experienced recessions much milder than our current Great Recession during these formative years believe that “luck rather than effort is the most important driver of individual success, support more government redistribution, and have less confidence in institutions.” Other research shows that people who think luck is the primary driver of success are more willing to increase taxes to pay for a more activist government. Giuliano and Spilimbergo’s findings support the observation that lies at the heart of William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational cycle theory, namely that the “values, attitudes and world-views” acquired during this period of early socialization “become fixed within individuals and are resistant to change.”
The research of Giuliano and Spilimbergo also suggests that the Millennial Generation’s economic liberalism comes with a healthy dose of skepticism about the ability of institutions to help them meet their profound economic challenge. To fully restore Millennial confidence, government will need to take effective action to deal with the economy and reaffirm America’s tradition of economic mobility and rising middle class incomes. Beyond whatever short-term benefits President Obama’s stimulus program has provided, longer term more structural changes in the economy will need be made — starting with education.
Higher education remains an important antidote to low wage employment in such economic circumstances, but only if students complete their chosen field of study. Yale economist Lisa Kahn has found that “the labor market consequences of graduating from college in a bad economy are large, negative and persistent,” resulting in lower wages, in less prestigious jobs for extensive periods of time. Her research suggests that even college graduates fortunate enough to get a job still suffer a 6 to 7 percent initial loss in income for every one percent drop in employment. Even though the differential diminishes over time, her research found such unlucky graduates still experiencing a statistically significant 2.5% loss of wages fifteen years later.
Even so, those who get a four year college degree earn on average 35% more than those who leave college without getting a degree. Getting one or two years of post-secondary education and receiving an associate’s degree from a community college or a certificate from a career college also boosts wages above what they would have been without such a degree. One Florida study found that holders of certificates in particular occupations such as health care or IT earned 27% more than those who attended, but failed to complete, college. Associate degree holders earned 8% more than those who had no post-secondary education.
One major reason students aren’t able to get a degree or certificate is that three-fourths of associate degree or certificate seekers end up working to help cover their education and living costs. Meanwhile federal support for higher education has failed to keep up with rising costs so that more and more students find themselves financing their education with student loans of one type or another. In Indiana, for instance, 62 percent of those who do manage to graduate carry student loan debt averaging $23,264 per student. The loan burden in that state is even higher for graduates of for-profit, private colleges who leave school with an average debt burden of $32,650.
Increasing Pell Grant funding and the value of college tuition tax deductions are two steps government could take to address this problem. Reforming the student loan program to eliminate subsidies to banks as President Obama has advocated, and including student loans under any consumer protection agency that might be created as part of financial regulatory reform would also help address this problem that would fit with Millennial’s liberal perspectives.
The other major reason students fail to complete their post-secondary education is the inadequate preparation for college, especially in math and science, they receive in high school. This is something that parents of Millennials will tolerate no longer. As Neil Howe points out, "when these Gen-X "security moms" and "committed dads" are fully roused, they can be even more attached, protective and interventionist than Boomer [parents] ever were. . .They will juggle schedules to monitor their kids' activities in person. . . [and] will quickly switch their kids into - or take them out of - any situation according to their assessment of their youngsters' interests."
These “stealth-fighter parents” have already begun to move one of the largest and most consistently poorly performing school districts in the country, Los Angeles Unified, forcing the district to grant them more say in school curriculum and governance. Their success led California’s usually dysfunctional legislature to pass a “parent trigger” law empowering a majority of parents in a demonstrably failing school attendance area to fire the principal and half the teachers as part of a turnaround initiative. Congress should incorporate this very interventionist idea into its reauthorization of the framework federal education law when it comes up for renewal this year. It should also expand funding for the Obama administration’s innovative Race to the Top initiative, which rewards schools that improve student learning performance rather than simply subsidizing mediocrity.
All of these ideas will be resisted by those who believe that individual success is solely based upon effort and initiative and don’t believe in the efficacy of government efforts to revive the economy. Others with a stake in the status quo will argue against some of these ideas. But Millennials, whose lifetime of liberal economic beliefs have been forged by their experience with the Great Recession, will resist entreaties from those who offer only laissez faire economic policies or who try to delay dealing with these problems. They want government to act quickly and effectively, before they and their siblings are doomed to never enjoy the American Dream.
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.