The deludedly optimistic youth of America
By Chadwick Matlin
The opinions expressed are his own.
Friday was a slightly-better bad day to be a young person in America. The morning’s unemployment said 14 percent of Americans 20-24 years old are now unemployed, down 0.7 points from September. Teenagers’ rate was similarly down, dropping 0.5 points to 24.1 overall.
But still—14 and 24.1 percent! Well above the national average of 9 percent, which isn’t exactly something the Millennials can look forward to.
And yet young people remain stubbornly optimistic. In a comprehensive new survey of 842 young people that Demos, a New York think tank, released this week, almost 69 percent of Americans 18-34 years old “believe the American dream is still achievable.” In other news, the average student debt for new graduates is now $25,250, larger than ever. (To be fair, this isn’t entirely recession-related. My debt was around $100,000 when I graduated, and that was a year and a half before Lehman went belly-up.)
Politicians are as deluded as young people. Rick Perry, in a slurry speech that’s better known for its delivery than its content, said last week that “our obligation is not only to provide children with the best environment to nurture, but to ensure every child inherits a land full of opportunity.” Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, meanwhile, are spending Friday at the “Defending the American Dream” summit. And the Dream dream affects Democrats too. Don’t forget about Barack Obama’s now-abandoned Win the Future campaign, which acknowledged that while things are awful, they could easily get better—if only we tried. A dysfunctional Congress scoffs at such a quaint notion.
A person prone to cynicism—(read: this author)—looks at this wishful thinking and blames it on demographics, which is to say blames it on politics. The perpetuation of the American Dream, despite all evidence suggesting the American Dream has died, is good politics in the way that Good Politics is almost always quite bad. It hijacks the American character while ignoring the American reality.
Our political culture’s pervasive discussion of the mystical American Dream appeals to two main demographics: parents and kids. Which is to say, it appeals to nearly everyone. Parents—the very people who mucked up the earth and refuse to do anything about it—want to believe their wrongs will be absolved. Kids, meanwhile, need some dream to hold on to, else they all take to occupying the streets.
Which, whoops. The streets are now occupied, making politicians’ pleas to Millennials more important now than in 2008. Barack Obama, after all, needed the young people to win back then, and he’ll need to rely on them even more in 2012. But will they show up, especially given Obama’s mixed record on the youth’s pet issues? Will unfounded optimism be enough to drive them to the polls? Or will the unemployment that has already put them on the couch keep them there come Election Day?
I dove into historical voting trends for answers…and found more confusion. There’s a very weak correlation between youth unemployment (I used 16-24 year olds) and their coming out to vote. See the chart below, where the blue line is the gap between registered and actual voters aged 18-24, and the red line is an average unemployment rate in the three quarters preceding a presidential Election Day. Some years, high youth unemployment means low youth turnout. Other years, it’s the other way around.
There have been plenty of people trying to make sense of Millennials in the last few weeks. Much of the rumination was launched by a New York Magazine cover story about how young Americans are readjusting their expectations in the recession. The thesis: expectations are being readjusted downward, but there isn’t much choice otherwise. And isn’t that what getting older is about?
The author is a close friend, and while she was writing the piece I told her that our generation should be named the Dayenus, after the Hebrew for, essentially, “it would’ve been enough.” Every Passover Jews sit around the table and tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, singing that it would’ve been alright if God had only freed them from slavery. The whole splitting the Red Sea thing was just gravy.
Demos’ data suggests that for young people it’s apparently enough just to be an American. Who cares about crippling student debt, a piddling employment rate, and a democracy that sometimes borders on farce? We live in a country that allows for a modicum of civil rights and has the wealth to at least make us entertain our dreams (if not achieve them). We can make do with that.
But dayenu can easily calcify into apathy. Presidential candidates are promising miracles; but young people, optimists though they are, may be done hoping for politicians to come and part the Red Sea. They’ve seen far too many drown in Washington’s red tape.
PHOTO: Graduating students listen to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony in Ann Arbor, Michigan May 1, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque