This is an excerpt of a talk the author gave at the Senate Democrats’ annual issues conference Wednesday, January 31st. He was invited to speak to the Senators about how to build a broad based message that connects to working-class Millennials during a panel on “Kitchen Table Economics.”
In the days and weeks following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, a volunteer brigade of Japanese senior citizens sprung into action to prevent the catastrophe from becoming even worse. One senior asked:
My generation, the old generation, promoted the nuclear plants. If we don’t take responsibility, who will?
The United States is not facing a nuclear meltdown, but younger generations today face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieving the educational, economic, and leadership opportunities that older generations once enjoyed. Will baby boomers and their parents have the courage to admit that it was their promotion of a political agenda that put the interests of a wealthy few before the interests of working families that led to such mounting generational inequality? The good news is that it is not too late for elected officials in Congress (average age 61) to finally take responsibility and help prevent this disaster from becoming a full-blown meltdown.
For the first time ever, millennials will this year surpass baby boomers as the largest generation of Americans eligible to vote. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they will exercise that right consistently. According to new analysis by Greenberg research, interest among millennials in the 2018 election is slipping despite their less than rosy feelings toward our current President. Millennial disengagement from formal democracy could prove a bulwark against the long imagined boost for progressive governance vis-à-vis the nation’s changing racial and ethnic composition. According to a study in The New York Times, political events that happen at the age of 18 are 3 times as powerful as events at the age of 40 in solidifying one’s political views; the continued lack of governmental action in addressing rising inequality could deepen social fragmentation along racial lines while fanning the flames of violent extremism on the far right.
In the upcoming debate over Social Security, for example, we need to make sure that the millennial generation is offered the same deal, or a better deal, than previous ones. There are proposals out there to win support from seniors for Social Security cuts by promising that older generations will be “saved” by phasing in cuts that would only affect younger generations. Will Senators rebuke such ideas and lead the charge to say “we want retirement security for ourselves, but we’re fighting to keep it for our grandkids too”? Some politicians have been paving the way for this strategy to delegitimize retirement security through a sophisticated propaganda campaign that has convinced 81 percent of millennials to think they’ll never collect Social Security benefits despite being the poorest generation in the country right now.
But it’s not just over issues of retirement security that tactics of generational warfare are being employed to promote a reactionary political agenda. When I was a union organizer, I saw several union locals cornered into labor agreements with employers that protected health-care benefits and wage increases for older workers while phasing them out for newer, younger ones. Labor laws in the United States have not been updated to recognize the changing nature of work in an era where subcontracting and the gig economy model are becoming more dominant. Lower union density and the lack of leverage for traditional unions at the bargaining table means younger workers are not getting the same, or a better deal, than baby boomers from employers. Senate Democrats have to support the rebuilding of a twenty-first-century labor movement collective bargaining. The millennial generation does want a collective voice over the decisions that will deeply affect their lives in the workplace. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 76 percent of the increase in union membership in 2017 was due to workers under 35. Other opinion polls have shown that unions are more popular with millennials than with other generations. But labor laws in the United States have not been updated to the rapid transformations in the global, digital economy. UNI’s Philip Jennings and Christina Colclough put it best in their thoughtful article “Towards a Fairer Gig Economy,”
If you read the marketing material of these companies, it sometimes seems like the awkward politics of labour exploitation have been cleverly solved; or that they can be engineered away. But have such old troubles really vanished? Are the old politics of unions, collective bargaining, and exploitation really going to disappear with the download of these new digital platforms?
Moving on to infrastructure. Younger generations depend on more than just roads, bridges, and buildings to thrive in the twenty-first century. Just as the Interstate Highway System, or going back further, the New Deal, laid a foundation of public infrastructure that a robust economy could be built on, so too do we need a new infrastructure for millennials and beyond. One obvious candidate is the installation of public, high-speed, broadband Internet everywhere—treated as a public utility, open and accessible to everyone. The fight to restore net neutrality rules is an important step and receives broad support from millennials, a tech-savvy, digital generation. But the core issue for younger generations isn’t just protecting net neutrality, it is also asserting access to the open Internet as a basic right. An infrastructure proposal that restores the Obama-era rules, but also includes money for high-speed municipal broadband could be a major motivating factor for youth turnout.
Another major responsibility for baby boomers is taking massive action to reduce the burden of student debt on younger generations. (Though older generations, too, have student debt.) According to the Lumina Foundation, 40 million jobs will require a post-secondary education beyond a high-school diploma. Providing an education beyond high school is a glaring issue for working-class African American, Latino, and rural white millennials. Philanthropy can and has played an essential role in increasing the post-secondary credentials of the workforce, but the United States government has still greater financial and technical resources to bring to the table.
Today, employers in the technology and data science industries are recruiting more workers from boot camps and online continuing education programs that exist outside the four walls of a traditional institution of higher learning. In the digital economy, younger generations will be required to constantly update their skills and gain more training to stay ahead; those who fail to do so will fall further and further behind. Proposals to make post-secondary education debt-free or to make traditional higher education completely free are huge motivators for millennial engagement, however remote the chance of these proposals passing in such a hostile political environment.
There are significant political differences between younger and older generations. This is true despite the fact that the scientific and technological revolution we are witnessing today is generating more than enough prosperity to protect the hard-earned gains of retiring baby boomers while also reversing decades of underinvestment in younger generations. Our elected representatives can show the way by settling for nothing less than a politics that promises millennials the same or a better deal than that which previous generations received.