Over the past five years, the millennial generation (born after 1983) has been exercising greater influence over the economy, society and politics of the country, a trend that will only grow in the coming years. So far, they’ve leaned Democratic in the voting booth, but could the lousy economic fate of what I’ve dubbed “the screwed generation” lead to a change?
Just look at these numbers. Since 2008, the percentage of the workforce under 25 has dropped by 13.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while that of people over 55 has risen by 7.6%. Among high school graduates who left school in 2009-11, only 16% had full-time work in 2012, and 22% worked part time although most sought a full-time job.
These trends are likely to continue and could worsen, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, particularly for workers between 20 and 24. Today even a college degree guarantees increasingly little in terms of social uplift. Tuition debt is nearing $1 trillion; the percentage of 25-year-olds with school debt has risen from 25% in 2004 to close 40% in 2012. Average indebtedness amongst borrowers has grown 70% from $15,000 to nearly $25,000.
A record one in 10 recent college borrowers has defaulted on their debt, the highest level in a decade. With wages for college graduates on a downward slope, one has to wonder how many more will join them.
Over 43% of recent graduates who are employed are working at jobs that don’t require a college education, according to a recent report by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Some 16% of bartenders and almost the same percentage of parking attendants had a bachelor’s degree or higher, notes Ohio State economics professor Richard Vedder.
Besides a tepid economy, the millennials confront paying off huge public debts, much of it due to the generous pensions of boomer public employees. This constitutes what economist Robert Samuelson has labeled “a generational war” in which the young are destined to be losers in the “withering of the affluent society.” As he puts it: “For millions of younger Americans—say, those 40 and under—living better than their parents is a pipe dream. They won’t.”
Not surprisingly, the young, who are traditionally optimists, are becoming far less so. According to a Rutgers study, 56% of recent high school graduates feel they would not be financially more successful than their parents; only 14% thought they’d do better. College education doesn’t seem to make a difference: 58% of recent graduates feel they won’t do as well as the previous generation. Only 16% thought they’d do better.
According to Pew Research, up to half of millennials lean Democratic, compared to barely a third who favor the Republicans. The actue generational chronciclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais suggest that this will continue and that hard times may even strengthen millennial support for what they describe as “economically activist government.” They cite a 2011 Pew poll that found millennials preferred a larger government that provided more services over a smaller one by a 54% to 35% margin. By contrast, 54% of boomers (born 1946-1964) and 59% of the silent generation (born 1925-1945) favored a smaller government.
Critically, they maintain, these political views are likely to remain in place throughout their lifespans. The “Greatest Generation,” those born before 1925 who grew up during the Depression, never lost their enthusiasm for government.
But it may be premature for Democrats to presume they have a lock on millennials’ loyalty.
In 2008, twice as many millennials identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic (58%) as identified with the GOP or leaned Republican (29%), according to Pew. Cut to 2014, and the Democrats’ advantage among millennials has narrowed to 16 percentage points (50% to 34%).
Although barely a a quarter of those under 35 said they had positive feelings toward the Republican Party in the last Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, in a poll earlier this year, support for the Democrats has also dropped from roughly half to barely a third. Last year, a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds polled in a Harvard study no longer approved of the president’s performance.
This suggest that like boomers under Jimmy Carter, who then shifted to Reagan, the millennials are not to be taken for granted. To attract them, though, Republicans will need to change many of their positions.
Millennials, for example, are far more heavily minority, and descended from recent immigrants; they are likely to be far more permissive on immigration reform than earlier generation. At the same time, they embrace significantly more liberal views on issues like gay marriage and legalization of marijuana than older generations. Republicans right now are not competitive on these issues.
Some conservatives rest their hopes not on attracting millennial voters but on the possibility that they’ll stay home during the mid-term elections. In 2010, 18- to 24-year-olds turned out at half the rate of the rest of electorate. But this can’t go on forever; the millennial share of the vote, even with poor turnouts, will continue to go up and will eventually overwhelm a party that depends on older voters to prop them up. In 2012 millennials accounted for roughly a quarter of the electorate; by 2020 they will be about 36%.
Simply put, Republicans have no choice but to engage this population. To do so, they must focus primarily on economic growth, where the Democrats don’t have much to recommend themselves. Issues where the GOP could make up ground include reform for boomer pensions, as well as policies to spark job and income growth.
To win over a significant share of millennials, Republicans don’t so much need a new Reagan as a program that inspires more confidence in the economic future.
Although I am not fond of either party, a more competitive political environment among millennials would be useful, not only for conservatives also for the generation itself. As African Americans should have learned by now, being taken for granted does not guarantee better service from the political class. Under the country’s first black president, conditions for African Americans have declined rapidly.
The evolution of the boomer generation suggests that such a change of fortune could happen. Between 1990 and today, the percentage of boomers identifying with the Democratic Party has dropped from 31% in 1990 to 25%. Much of this stemmed from reaction to the failures of the Carter presidency.
This suggests that, although the formative years are critical, people do change their views as they age, experience life as adults and, most importantly, become parents. Many may not become Republicans, but could easily shift towards independent status. It may not happen this year, but perhaps later in the decade.
Over time, even the self-absorbed boomers will have to give way to the needs of the new generation. The challenge for both parties is to develop policies that will allow the millennials to rise as have previous American generations. Whether these ideas come from the right or left seems less important than that the debate be engaged, open and focused more on the future than the past.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilia