As an occasional contributor to the Ku35 series, I have tried to focus on the economic issues that face us young people. If you want to understand why we are so politicized, why we are so Democratic, I believe we must begin with the truly dire economic conditions our generations faces - the worst in 70 years.
I wrote about this in February - but that was based on a California-specific study. In May Demos published the Economic State of Young America, illustrating on a national level and in stark terms the crisis we face. Tonight I want to give a quick tour of their points, and then explain what it means for generational politics.
Kossacks Under 35 is a weekly diary series designed to create a community within DailyKos that focuses on young people. Our overall goals are to work on increasing young voters' Democratic majority, and to raise awareness about issues that particularly affect young people, with a potential eye to policy solutions. Kossacks of all ages are welcome to participate (and do!), but the overall framework of each diary will likely be on or from a younger person's perspective. If you would like more information or want to contribute a diary, please email kath25 at kossacksunder35 (at) gmail dot com
I like to say that our generation - we who are under 35 - are the Johnny Rotten generation. Not in the sense that we all like punk, but instead in the sense that we all can sympathize with his famous statement. We all have the feeling we've been cheated.
Cheated out of our futures, really. For most of this decade I felt that something wasn't quite right. My friends and I worked hard, studied hard, kept out of trouble. We played by the rules. We did what we were supposed to do. And yet we find ourselves struggling to stay afloat.
Whenever I've mentioned this before, I've had some older Kossacks dismiss my claims, saying that every young generations feels they have it hard, that things are unfair. But the Demos findings should blow that out of the water. I say this not to criticize older Kossacks, but to make the point as clearly as I can - what we young people face is a particularly bad economic future, and to understand our politics and our future, we must understand the hard times we face.
A Generation of Inequality
The Demos study makes clear that our generation faces falling wages and poor job prospects - no matter whether you're a college grad or not. College-grad women are doing the best out of us, but even they have faced stagnant low wages and soaring costs of living.
Median income of 25-34 year olds in 2004 dollars:
And as the chart on page 4 shows, virtually ALL of the wage gains that were made were between 1995 and 2000. Since 2001 every subgroup of we under 35 have seen our wages decline. And the picture is worse for young people of color - their wages are almost $10,000 lower than those of white and Asian young people and their unemployment rates are significantly higher.
The amount of "good jobs" - defined as those that pay more than $16/hr or $32,000 a year, that offer health care and a pension, has actually shrank since 1975, while "bad jobs" - which offer none of these - have seen significant growth. That means that, along with the declining wages after 2001, even young people with college degrees are facing problems. College used to be an entrance to a stable middle-class living - but no more.
Some argue that student loans and education are worth it - that these will eventually pay off in higher earning power. The Demos study directly challenges this claim, instead proving what we under 35 always suspected - that student loans consign us to economic insecurity. From page 15:
Households age 18-34 without education debt: 22% are "economically buoyant", but for those with education debt, only 6% are "economically buoyant."
Our generation is a generation mired in debt, and the study shows that we have FAR more credit card debt than other generations. This is often cause for an attack on us young people - the assumption is that we're wasteful spenders who use the credit cards like free money, oblivious to the consequences. But as the above suggests, most of us use them to get by - to pay car insurance, or gas, or groceries, or utility bills. With stagnant wages, bad jobs, and a soaring cost of living, credit cards are for some the only way we can make ends meet.
In fact, the situation is getting so bad that rising numbers of us are having to move in with our parents. For those of us who live out on our own - like me - are are spending more than ever on rent. Some claim this is because we like to live in expensive cities, but remember this is a national study, not a study of young people in Manhattan and San Francisco. US Census data shows the following:
Percentage of people age 25-34 spending more than 30% of their income on rent:
The report goes on to examine homeownership and raising a family - needless to say both have become more costly, reinforcing the core point: our generation is having an extremely difficult time finding economic security, whereas those who came before us did not face the same problems.
Demos provides some possible answers, including expand "good jobs" such as green collar jobs, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, design and implement "career ladders" in health care and education so young people are not stuck in underpaid entry-level positions. They also suggest returning to the policies of the 1960s and 1970s where college was either free or quite affordable (a promise that has been eroded).
I think we need to go much, much further. I have long advocated blanket forgiveness of student loans, with no conditions. This often gets resistance, but it's a common-sense policy that would have FAR more stimulus value than a tax rebate and would liberate young people to innovate, create, and build a 21st century economy. We can either pay back our student loans, or we can have a strong American economy - but we cannot have both.
I also believe we need to emphasize changes in urban living. Young people are, generally if not completely, less wedded to the obsolete 20th century suburban model. We don't mind living in crowded cities, taking the bus or the train, walking or biking to get our errands done. But it's not just a nicer way to live - the ONLY way we will afford to have any economic security is if we can be liberated from oil-based forms of transportation. Urban density done right can be more affordable for young families than living out in the suburbs.
We also need to repatriate our good jobs. Free trade has been a complete disaster for our country, not only destroying the middle class but offshoring the very jobs that previous generations used to enter the middle class when they were our age.
If nothing is done now, then our generation is going to be left behind - for good. I invite you all to give suggestions in the comments
Whenever issues that affect young people are discussed, generational fault lines tend to emerge. Some older folks take their life experience and see it as universal, instead of a unique set of historical circumstances, and so discount or belittle the economic problems we face, assuming that it's no worse than anything they experienced.
And for our part, some young people believe that older generations cannot possibly understand what we are going through, or that they have no interest in understanding, so screw them we'll just build our own movement.
Diaries like these, I hope, can help bridge these divides. Our generation is large and we are trending Democratic in a BIG way. This is of course because of precisely the issues I described above - contrary to the fears, 30 years of Reaganomics didn't turn us into free market zombies - instead as we bore the brunt of it, we became stark raving New Dealers who know that without progressive government action we are screwed.
And we also recognize that these problems are not unique to us - folks in all generations are suffering from similar problems of rising costs, declining wages, soaring debts, vanishing jobs. These problems won't magically go away like the 1970s crisis did - these problems are here to stay unless we come together and form a common front.
Part of that does require us to admit mistakes. The choices made by the generations that came before us were the wrong ones, and if this country is to survive we must reject Reaganomics in all of its forms and return to a Keynesian, government-centered, public sector model at minimum (I think we actually must go further, toward democratic socialism, but that's a subject for another diary).
And it also requires us young people ready to storm the castle to realize that people in the older generations aren't totally an old guard clinging to a status quo, but that many of them face the same problems, and should be willing to join us in a sustained campaign to end the growing inequality that characterizes American life.