Millennials now constitute the largest voting bloc in the country, but they are considered the most politically disengaged. Despite counting 88 million people, only 45 percent of them voted in the 2012 elections; in 2008, an election with historic turnout, only 49 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds voted. That leaves a huge swatch of Millennials unengaged and possibly uninterested in national elections, and demographers, marketers, activists and politicians are wondering why.
A new report by Democracy Corps offers some clues, highlighting two demographic segments within the millennial generation – white men and black women – who on the surface would seem to have different concerns. Yet members of both, questioned in focus groups that were conducted last month in Philadelphia, revealed that economic concerns are central to their daily struggles — and their political leanings.
Although specific candidates were not discussed, the report underpins why Bernie Sanders has been so successful in capturing the Millennial vote among Democrats. Sanders’ message of a broken political system, and his advocacy of an America that works to reduce its burden on young people, resonates with Millennials struggling to make enough money to start their adult lives.
Reducing the gaps between the rich and poor by providing opportunities for all was the primary concern for both groups, despite the general socioeconomic differences between white men, historically winners in the American economic order, and black women, who have often been left behind. “Let’s just level the playing field so the middle class can grow. Like we were talking about earlier, the economy, how it was different from back in the day until now,” said a black female attendee.
Both focus groups felt excluded from the recent economic growth the country has enjoyed, owing to corporations that enjoy excessive political influence and favorable tax codes. They described the winners of the economic system as “the top percent,” “Trump,” and “scumbags,” reflecting a majority attitude that inequality has gotten worse between the rich and poor, borne out by statistical data: Between 2009 and 2012, the top one percent of Americans saw their income increase by 34.7 percent while everyone else had their wages increase by 0.8 percent.
With millennials making up 40 percent of the country’s unemployed, disillusionment with the economic system is not unusual among the most educated generation in the country’s history, who often struggle to find well-paying, stable employment. This week’s news that the jobless rate has dropped below five percent for the first time since 2008 means little for a demographic slice that suffers from a 13.8 percent unemployment rate.
Job opportunities are particularly important for millennials, who are collectively saddled with over $1 trillion of student debt. Almost all attendees described student loans as a major impediment to purchasing even basic consumer items. “You want to put gas in your car or you want to pay your student loan? I mean, that’s just what it is,” said one of the white male attendees. Another said, “I’m in some crazy debt and I’m only 24.” While a college diploma or graduate degree is still viewed as a ticket to a higher standard of living, that promise has failed to materialize for millennials as a whole.
Even though millennials are working longer hours, they are getting paid less and expected to do the work of two people. “Just from experience, the expectations are a little unrealistic. They expect so much but offer little,” said one of the black women. That reality has been particularly discouraging to the focus group members, many of whom still live at home and feel they aren’t paying off their student loans fast enough. A white man said, “I still live at home with my mom and dad, I haven’t moved out. You know, I’m working hard, but there’s no payoff to it, you know?”
And while not describing themselves as politically active (several made statements to the effect that “this is probably the first time I ever talked about politics”), many in the focus groups said they were repelled by the rhetoric coming out of the Republican presidential candidates. One white millennial from the group described the GOP lineup as “cartoon characters, Looney Tunes.”
“Disgusted,” “ashamed,” “repulsed,” and “disappointed” were used by the black women’s focus group in describing the candidates. The economic views espoused by the Republican candidates, promoting more tax cuts for billionaires and trickle-down economics, only reinforced that view.
Although this was a small focus group, their concerns were not any different from larger surveys of millennials, or indeed many Americans no matter their age, and speaks to a larger truth: candidates who want their votes will have to speak to their deepest worries.
Photo: A bunch of young people in front of the U.S. Capitol. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert