WASHINGTON -- One in six are unemployed, more than any other adult age group. They carry an average of $24,000 in student debt. And one in 10 have been forced to move back in with their parents after school.
No doubt about it, these are hard times for young adults. But it takes a leap of faith to start a membership and advocacy group called Our Time as the Millennial generation’s answer to AARP.
Launched this week in a Pennsylvania Avenue office down the street from the White House, Our Time seeks to use online organizing to “change corporate practices, create exclusive deals and spark a national conversation.” It wants to “stand up for Americans under 30” while using its bargaining might to get discounts on health insurance and credit card programs.
And with a homepage that Friday showed a scruffy dude screaming, “F#%K, I need a job! One in six of us is out of work,” and no annual dues for a generation used to getting everything free online, Our Time is unlikely to be mistaken for the group formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.
“Our generation has more of an economic reason to engage than anyone,” said Matthew Segal, the group’s 25-year-old president. “We can’t just complain about these things or sit on the sidelines. We need to use our generation’s unique strengths to fix them … This is the civil rights issue for our generation. If you can’t have economic freedom and mobility to become financially independent at an early age, than you are entering society on the wrong foot.”
Our Time’s target audience can be summed up by the headline in a recent New York Times op-ed written by a 24-year-old: “Educated, Unemployed and Frustrated.”
It is being formed at a time when a growing chorus of commentators -- from David Brooks to Fareed Zakaria to Robert Samuelson -- are connecting the yawning budget deficit to the nearly 40 percent of the federal budget that goes to Social Security and Medicare. Where, they ask, is the political will to take on those entitlements when, according to a 2009 Brookings Institution report, an elderly person receives $7 in federal aid for every $ 1 that goes to a child.
“Everyone’s talking about ‘doing it for the children,’ yet the children are being neglected, or at the very least held hostage for political gain,” Segal said. “We have become cheap talking points for our budget, health care system, tax code and just about every other social quandary.”
Segal said his peers worry their generation will be the first economically less well off than their parents’ and doubt the social safety net will be there when it’s their turn to retire.
“We want to make sure every generation is willing to put some skin in the game, otherwise we’re just kicking the can down the road,” Segal said. “We’re not here to complain and ask for federal handouts.”
Donna Butts of the advocacy group Generations United said Our Time sounds “wonderful,” especially at a time when young people in the Middle East are feeling so empowered. But she worries the group will wind up pitting one generation against another. Millennials aren’t the first to enter the workforce during recessionary times, she notes. “From our perspective,” she said, “it's not a fight, it’s a family.”
Dean Baker, a liberal economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said the group is “founded on a lie” if its creators believe older generations are getting a bigger share of the pie. “It’s obviously wrong-headed,” he said, to blame seniors instead of the rich for taking more than their fair share of the nation’s wealth.
Segal said he isn’t interested in sparking a war with his grandparents’ generation or with Baby Boomers. If anything, the early-bird dinner crowd has been an inspiration to a generation that can barely afford anything more elaborate than Chipotle.
“Young people don’t have a seat at the table now and that’s because we don’t vote in high enough numbers” like seniors do, Segal said.
Indeed, the genesis of Our Time grew out of the 2004 election, when Segal and his friend, Jarrett Moreno, were students at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. They were among hundreds of students who made national headlines when they had to wait 10 hours or more to vote in the presidential election.
Segal, who grew up in an affluent suburb on Chicago’s North Shore, went on to found SAVE, the Student Association for Voter Empowerment to help get out the youth vote in the 2008 election. The group eventually grew to more than 10,000 members on 40 college campuses.
Young voters turning out in force helped elect Barack Obama president in 2008. Two years later, though, many may have been too busy looking for a job to vote in congressional elections.
Segal and D.C. native Moreno decided there was a need to engage their peers year-round and not just at election time. And that’s where Our Time came in.
Neil Howe, a generational expert whose books include "Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation," says Our Time has the potential to be “the political and social movement equivalent of Groupon.”
He compares today’s 20-somethings to the World War II G.I. generation that made AARP into the powerhouse membership and lobbying group it is today. While today’s seniors lacked Facebook or other social network sites, they were joiners who believed in what Howe calls “collective entitlement.”
Just as the generation that came of age in the Great Depression energized the union movement, Howe said Millennials like those who recently marched in Madison, Wis., could lead a revival for organized labor.
“They are a strong civic generation with a strong sense of peer cohesion,” Howe said. “They probably will reoccupy the civic void left behind by Generation Xers and Boomers and will create the same sense of solidarity that the G.I. generation, or greatest generation did.”
And they will do it in a style very different than the Baby Boomers. Before they began qualifying for Social Security this year, many Boomers didn’t trust anyone over 30 -- a credo taken to the extreme in the 1968 cult classic "Wild in the Streets."
The Millennials at Our Time prefer to use humor to dramatize their plight, as in a series of online videos entitled, “Living at Home Sucks.”
And Segal said the emphasis is on entrepreneurship: “If you can’t find a job, create your own.”
Baker said there is nothing wrong with being entrepreneurial “but they are deluded if think they can all get by running their own businesses,” noting the vast majority of start-ups fail.
Whether Our Time will be among the failures remains to be seen.
“The economic challenges they face are not overstated,” Howe said. “Their challenge is politically whether they can get other people to see them as having legitimate grievances, that the system owes them something.”