The Sinking American Electorate: Young And In Peril

Derek Pugh

Millennials – the largest, best educated, and most diverse generation in our nation’s history – have one question for Democrats seeking election in 2014: Do your values really reflect ours?

Democrats have reason to worry about what the answer would be from the 80 million people between the ages of 18 and 29 who make up the largest segment of what Democracy Corps calls the “rising American electorate.” That’s because too many in this group don’t seem themselves as “rising” when it comes to their economic fortunes. Their judgment about not only who is responsible but also who is fighting for their economic future will be key to determining the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections.

The Sinking American Electorate

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Millennials constituted 18 percent of the vote in 2008, and backed Obama by more than a two-to-one ratio (66 percent to 32 percent). Four years later, comprising 19 percent of the vote, they helped Democrats grow their numbers in Congress and were the group giving Obama their largest margin support in four key swing states: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. This group is adding about four million eligible voters a year.

But the fragile economy has not been able to support their needs. On Thursday, Demos released a bleak report on the employment prospects of 18-to-34-year-olds, whose labor force participation is now at record lows. “For many young people the promises of finding a good job, starting a family, or making a better life for themselves are all on hold” as they struggle in an economy that has “pushed them toward the sidelines, ” the report said.

The report concludes, “This generation of young adults will bear the scar of the Great Recession well into their working lives. … They will start their careers later, earn less, and put off the kinds of investments that establish security for the future.”

This was also clear in interviews Democracy Corps did for their most recent report on the RAE and unmarried women. Many have witnessed friends and family lose their jobs, homes, health care insurance, and face other forms of economic hardship. Millions have been forced to accumulate student loan debt exceeding $1 trillion, with the average graduate now burdened with more than $27,000 in loans.

Upon graduation, debt-ridden young adults enter the workforce during the worst recession since the Great Depression, and slowest recovery on record. Although millennials are confident, self-expressive, optimistic and liberal, they are also the most scarred by the economic collapse. Currently, 284,000 college graduates are barely making minimum wage and thousands more are unemployed. For millenials, the American promise that a quality education guarantees gainful employment with living wages is now being broken.

As income inequality has continued to grow, and wages remain stagnant from the lost Bush years, the wealth gap between young and older Americans stands at the widest ever. In 2012, the median net worth of households headed by millennials is a mere $3,662, while households headed by someone 65 or older is $170,494. According to the U.S. Census, between 2005 and 2010 the median net worth for people under 35 fell by 37 percent.

Inevitability, the economy’s stunted growth has also diminished the ability for young people to leap into adulthood. The recession has forced a quarter of all millenials, often called the Boomerang or Peter Pan generation, to move back in with their parents, and nearly a third have put off marriage or having a child.

It isn’t that these hundreds of thousands of young adults don’t want to grow up; they simply can’t afford to.

The future may seem bleak for young adults, but it would be delusional to believe that millennials don’t desire or deserve the wants of previous generations. Eighty-four percent of 18-34-year-olds who are currently renting aspire to own a home; 64 percent rank the opportunity to own their own home as “very important”.

Conservative media outlets have dubbed millennials the give-me generation, saying many are moochers, feel entitled, and expect “handouts” from the government. This is simply fiction. Conservative policies robbed the middle class of its financial security when the economy collapsed, increasing the need for government support. This reality affects their political perspectives.

The real priorities of millennials and the RAE are clear: protect and strengthen social insurance benefits, invest in education and job creation, repeal the sequester, and raise the minimum wage. According to a study done by the Center for American Progress, 80 percent of young adults agree that a strategy for long-term economic growth must include government investments in science, education, and infrastructure. Furthermore, 72 percent favor tax hikes on the wealthy and believe that “the government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor.”

Here are some other key facts from Pew, Democracy Corps, and Gallup polls:

  • By a 48 to 41 percent margin, young adults say programs for older adults are a higher priority than deficit reduction.
  • People of all ages said they would rather increase taxes to the rich to pay for Social Security and Medicare than raise the eligibility age.
  • More than three-quarters (71 percent) of the RAE believe the sequester is harmful to our country.
  • To strengthen the Social Security system, 64 percent of millennials favor raising taxes on high-income earners.
  • By a 59 to 37 percent margin, young adults say government should do more to solve problems.
  • 78 percent of millennials believe that the minimum wage should be raised.

Our future is being shortchanged by reckless policies that neglect public investment and fail to provide jobs. Our nation is literally crumbling, hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers have been laid off, and vital aid used to make college affordable is being slashed. Recently, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said, “Fiscal policy is, indeed, a moral issue, and we should be ashamed of what we’re doing to the next generation’s economic prospects.”

Yet, in the current political arena, priorities of the young and old alike are being ignored and placed on the bargaining altar as a sacrificial offering.

Although the GOP’s fiscal and social policies are antithetical to the values of most millennials, their political enthusiasm for Democrats has also cooled. Since December, Obama’s job approval rating among young adults has already dropped by 9 percentage points. Many have begun to believe Obama’s messaging around change, for the Democratic Party, and politics itself, as nothing more than a farce. “About half of Millennials say the president has failed to change the way Washington works, which had been the central promise of his candidacy,” according to a recent Pew report. Words are nice, but something more tangible that can felt, instead of only heard, would be better.

Just recently, the Republican National Committee released a scathing “autopsy” report acknowledging that it must try harder to appeal to young voters, minorities, and women. But even if Republicans fail to rid their cave of every Neanderthal and appeal to the RAE, Democrats could still suffer if millennial disenchantment deepens and participation levels among young voters declines.

Remember the catastrophe of 2010, when millennials stayed home in large numbers. Polling data shows that a solid majority of young adults (53 percent) wanted a Democrat-controlled Congress. However, only 20.9 percent of all eligible young people voted in the 2010 midterms. More than half of the people who voted in 2008 (51 percent) shied away from the polls. In the months leading up to November 2014, Democrats will have to try even harder to win the millennial vote. Republicans are already poised to make some headway: note the thousands of young people at the Conservative Political Action Conference a few weeks ago.

As the most diverse generation (39 percent are people of color), millennials are more civicly engaged, progressive, open to change and tolerant non-meddlers on social issues. Overwhelming they support same-sex marriage (78 percent), abortion rights (68 percent), and immigration reform (78 percent). Democrats’ stance are social issues are the main draw for young voters.

But demography isn’t destiny. It would be suicidal for Democrats to take for granted a group that will comprise almost a quarter of the electorate by the 2014 midterms. Progressive views on social issues are appreciated, but are not sufficient. The number one priority of millennials and the rising American electorate is still economic recovery—and millenials need to see Democrats being the champions of a recovery that indeed allows them to rise.


Isaiah J. Poole and Ben Johnson contributed to this post.

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