Why America’s Youth Loves Bernie – POLITICO Magazine
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Bernie Sanders now finds himself at the epicenter of a political youth movement more powerful than any we have seen since the 1960s. In New Hampshire, he won 83 percent of voters under the age of 30. According to the latest Reuters tracking polls, nationally the 74-year-old Sanders leads Hillary Clinton by 35 percent among millennials. The question is why an aging, rumpled socialist from earthy-crunchy Vermont is so popular right now. After all, this is not the 1960s. There is no war to fight; Sanders is not George McGovern. Hippies have become aging boomers, the parents and grandparents of today’s youth. The economy has largely recovered.
And yet when Sanders calls for a “revolution,” young people appear to listen. For young Americans—even college-educated ones—the future seemsbleak and the American dream all the more distant, and that is key to Sanders’ appeal. Judging from a slew of recent polls and surveys, unemployment is statistically high among young Americans, meaningful jobs are desired and yet scarce, and millions graduate college only to find themselves without full-time employment just as they begin to repay student loans and without their own homes, living instead in their childhood bedrooms or basements under their parents’ anxious and watchful eye. They might be working at a fast-food or casual-dining chain, or at a low-paid retail job, but that is hardly a sustainable career. They have education and expectations, but for the majority, there is no simple way to match that with a job. They instead have the prospect of years of uncertainty while watching a few do spectacularly well. And those are the Bernie years.
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In a campaign season with no shortage of ironies and oddities—a billionaire New York businessman becoming the hero of impoverished Middle Americans for one—count the appeal of Sanders to millennials as just another. But it’s a big one. Sanders is out there every day telling young Americans why their opportunities have narrowed. He is enunciating what seems to them to be a coherent vision in which their future is being stolen by income inequality, big banks and Wall Street billionaires who exercise too much power, and the wealthy 1 percent who reap far too many rewards at the expense of most Americans.
The edge for Sanders among Americans ages 18 to 34 (the accepted definition of millennials) is even greater at the younger end of that spectrum. While older voters and Republicans especially place security and terrorism at the top of their concerns, younger voters (who overwhelmingly identify themselves as Democrats or independents rather than as Republicans, by more than 2 to 1) say that their No. 1 concern is jobs and the economy. Recent surveys by both USA Today and the Harvard Institute of Politics show that millennials are convinced that the deck is stacked against them. Half believe that “the American dream is dead” (though that also means that half believe it’s alive). Their main issues are health care, student loans, economic inequality, the environment and climate change, and social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. One recent survey indicated that how a candidate is positioned on loans and debt forgiveness was the most important issue.
That is precisely what Sanders speaks to, more forcefully and simply than any of the major candidates. Donald Trump may appeal to the general fear of decline and American weakness; Sanders speaks directly to the widespread sense that the American dream of working hard and making a decent living has been severely dented.
At first glance here as well, you would think that millennials would be less attracted to that message. After all, we know that in this economy of services and technology, college graduates are faring decently, with very low unemployment rates (below 4 percent nationally) and higher incomes. Millennials tend to have high rates of college attendance and graduation (more than 60 percent will graduate with a bachelor’s or associates degree, compare with about 40 percent for baby boomers),and thus they are the presumptive winners in today’s world.
The problem is that they aren’t instant or guaranteed winners. While unemployment for college graduates overall is very low, for recent college graduates it is very high. According to the Census Bureau and the New York Federal Reserve, unemployment for 22-year-old college graduates is above 12 percent and doesn’t decline to 4 percent until they hit the age of 30. Underemployment rates are not only higher; they are stratospheric. Defined as working a job that requires significantly less education than one has and paying substantially less than one’s level of education could command, underemployment rates for recent college grads is above 60 percent and doesn’t decline below 30 percent until well after the age of 30.
In the slow-growth aftermath of the Great Recession, these numbers are strikingly higher than they were in the past. That is then compounded by two other issues: student loans and housing.
Much has been made of the rising level of student loans, and much of the commentary has been overheated. Few uses of debt are more rational and justified than student loans, especially when one looks at the wide gulf between earnings of college graduates over time versus those without. By the time someone reached their early 30s, the gap is already in excess of $17,000 on average and increases from there. Taking on $20,000 to $25,000 of debt (which is about where most students fall in terms of indebtedness) to increase the odds of earning more makes eminent sense.
The problem is that lag between getting the degree, beginning to pay interest on those debts, and actually getting one of those jobs. You can quote statistics at someone ad nauseum, but telling a worried 23-year-old with $25,000 in debt working a $5-an-hour job (plus tips) at Olive Garden not to worry, they’ll be fine, when everyone older than them appears to be freaking out about the state of the world, the fate of the nation and the direction of the country is, to say the least, asking a lot.
And try telling them that when they find themselves living at home at precisely the time when they likely wish to be living on their own. Millennials since the Great Recession are living at home in numbers not seen since before World War II, when families living under one roof was more typical. While that may still be the norm in Italy, it is decidedly not the expectation of young Americans, and it is difficult not to perceive the move back home as a sign that economic prospects are bleak. That may not be strictly true: after all, saving on rent for a few years in one’s 20s is a sound economic choice, and having a home to return to, even if it is your parents’, is hardly a sign of economic Armageddon. But for the third of millennials who have moved back home (according to numbers compiled by the Pew Foundation),the experience is one of moving backward.
That sense is almost certainly compounded by parents. Many of them are also feeling the buffets of economic insecurity, whether in the form of morphing and confusing health care costs or their own change of fortunes economically. Even though there is a vast range of actual economic experiences in the United States today, covering the gamut from undeniable struggle to the wild successes of Silicon Valley, the general mood is apprehensive, and if you are in your early 20s living at home with anxious parents who see your struggles to obtain full-time meaningful employment as yet another sign that the country is off track, that is bound to shape your sense of the world in a negative way.
So these may well be the Bernie years: a period of uncertainty and anxiety that may not be as bad as it feels but feels pretty bad. We all live in our present, and few take comfort in comforting statistics that say you’ll be just fine if you have a college degree by the time you’re 30. Yes, you will inevitably ask, but how? How, specifically, because the path there seems strewn with obstacles, and too many seem to falter on the way no matter what the numbers say.
To that cohort, a message that their feelings of insecurity and the real challenges they face on the road are a product of a broken system where the few are prospering is both validating and empowering.
It is also flawed. Unlike Trump, Bernie speaks to a more sophisticated sense of what is off about the world. But like Trump, Sanders has few shades of gray (other than what he finds on his own head). Yes, this has been an economic system of skewed rewards, but not for the cohort that finds Sanders’ message most appealing. The path to a stable, rewarding career has most certainly gotten harder and takes longer, but it is a path that tens of millions eventually find regardless of the fact that too much of our national wealth ends up in the hands of too few people.
It used to be said that you were crazy if you were a conservative under the age of 35 or a liberal after that. Sanders has a message that makes eminent sense if you are 22, but less so when you are in your early 30s. That is why he has captured the youth vote—at least in those fleeting years right after college—in a way no one has seen since the ‘60s, and his call to revolution seems to hit home. The ‘60s movement didn’t propel that generation to power, but it changed politics forever. Sanders may not win the nomination, but his message is unlikely to fade.
Why America’s Youth Loves Bernie – POLITICO Magazine