In 2008, young people in America -- including many who voted in their first presidential election -- rallied behind a youthful senator from Illinois campaigning on the promise of change and hope. Now the incumbent in the White House, Barack Obama faces a difficult challenge in recapturing the youth vote for his reelection. Early this month, The New York Times reported that enthusiasm for Obama among voters aged 18-24 has fallen sharply since the last election cycle. And many of the young people interviewed in the article spoke of feeling alienated from politics.
So what is behind young peoples' disaffection? And what must President Obama do if he is serious about winning back the country's youth?
Young People Face a Broken American Dream
Young people are not acting irrationally when they report growing cynical. They are responding to the reality of an American Dream that lies in fragments at their feet.
Traditionally, the promise of prosperity in this country has rested on three foundations: good jobs, decent housing, and attainable college education. In recent decades, each of these three legs of the stool of economic stability has been kicked out from underneath the middle class.
With regard to jobs, young people have been told they could do anything -- that they were America's best hope for a competitive edge over other developed nations. But for those entering the workforce today, the good jobs just aren't there. A quick survey of Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals that only one of the ten fastest-growing occupations carries a median income of over $50,000 per year. Five of the ten make less than $30,000.
Second, young people were told that if they studied diligently and prepared themselves for careers, their hard work would allow them to one day earn enough buy a home. Yet home ownership is getting more and more inaccessible, with affordable housing now as distant a reality as well-paying jobs.
Finally, there's college. University education was supposed to provide the basis for achieving the other two keys to middle class life. However, today's graduates leave college shackled by ruinous debt, with sky-high tuition meaning that students must take tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Even in a good case scenario, these loans take decades to pay off.
The New York Times' story about growing alienation of young people from politics included interviews with several 18- to 24-year-olds who said the impossibility of finding decent work and the burden of student debt were driving factors in their despair. Their alienation is not baseless pessimism. Rather, it reflects a breakdown in our political and economic system.
The Consequences of Abandoning Our Youth
Failure to invest in America's youth has serious consequences: a loss of international competitiveness, a rise in disenfranchisement, and an expanding polarization in our politics.
While the United States languishes, other nations are actually investing in their young people. That America is a world leader in student debt leaves members of our next generation with a disadvantage over their foreign counterparts that promises to become a long-term liability. Moreover, countries like Sweden and Germany have government-sponsored workforce investment and apprenticeship programs that help their young people transition into full-time work with some confidence of future security.
The Obama campaign's 2008 promise of hope inspired many, but it also raised the danger of creating false hope amongst our youth. We need a next generation that is engaged in renewing our politics and making current beltway deadlock obsolete. But young people who feel ever more disenfranchised are ever less likely to take on that challenge. False hope fosters a lingering sense of anger, cynicism, and distance from civic life.
Those who do bother to get involved in politics may be tempted to enter at the fringes. Loss of hope is giving rise to something even more insidious than embarrassment on the international stage; it quietly pushes more young people to the extreme edges of social and political discourse. Those who feel they have been sold a false bill of goods find solace in the messages of conservatives and libertarians, who offer no policies to address the true interests of young people, but who effectively channel popular disaffection into a worldview that pits working people against one another.
Winning Back the Next Generation of Voters
More polarization is the last thing we need. Obama can re-inspire young people, but he will have to show some concrete results, not just rhetoric, in order to do it this time.
First, instead of kicking the can down the road on student loans, the president must take action to ameliorate the pain of existing debts and save young people from crippling financial burdens. After months of stalemate, Congress finally reached a deal on June 29 to extend the low 3.4% percent interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford student loans for one more year. But that means that without further action from Congress and the president, those loans will jump to 6.8 percent next year, hitting young graduates in the pocketbook just as they are exiting school. Obama is using his commitment to student loan reform as a campaign issue: he mentioned the loan rates in his weekly address just days before the vote. But Obama could go further by supporting Rep. Hansen Clarke's (D-MI) Student Loan Forgiveness Act, a bill that would forgive federal student loans after borrowers have made payments of 10 percent of their incomes for ten years. Those who work in public service would get their loans forgiven after five years. It's not a panacea, but having the president use his bully pulpit in support of the measure would help to show young people he is serious about making college affordable.
Second, Obama could introduce stronger workforce investment measures, such as expanding vocational certificate programs as a pathway toward improved job skills and higher educational attainment. A June 5 study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce entitled "Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees," found that certificates, which take less time and money to earn than do college degrees, could serve as an important path forward for a segment of young people preparing to enter the workforce. The study's authors, Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose and Andrew R. Hanson, recommend investing in certificate programs in order to boost young and displaced workers' prospects during this period of high unemployment. Indeed, employers say jobs requiring online research (and other skills in which one can earn a certificate) are sitting vacant. Yet Obama's education budget proposal for 2013 focused almost exclusively on college completion, requesting little or no new funding for non-degree certificate programs.
(Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, has been crisscrossing the country on a campaign tour to showcase community colleges as career-starters. If Biden were to add a few certificate programs to the tour as part of her workforce development boosterism, it could encourage Obama to transform his verbal support for vocational education into actual dollars for these programs in his 2014 budget proposal.)
Finally, Obama needs to work to restore the right for people to bargain collectively with their employers over the conditions of their employment. It was not preordained that the manufacturing jobs that gave rise to America's middle class would pay living wages and provide decent benefits. Those things were won through collective action. Instead of making empty promises to bring back factories that have moved overseas, the White House should focus on making sure that the jobs that do exist in this country are good ones.
That means reinventing collective bargaining for the next generation, cracking down on corporations that violate rights to free association, and creating new means for workers who are independent contractors or have non-traditional work arrangements to join in employees' organizations. A variety of innovative proposals -- from extending the Civil Rights Act to protect the right to unionize, to instating "just cause" laws at the state level -- have been proposed as steps toward achieving these goals. But the Obama administration has yet to make employees' right to organize a priority.
That is a problem. For without good jobs, affordable housing, and a solution to the student debt crisis, young people will have every reason to cry foul about the choices of political leadership being presented to them -- and to demand something better than what the president currently has on offer.