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'Youthquake' shakes up electoral politics

They're called the Millennials — and they're fed up. Why? Try angst about jobs, health care, and debt. Now they're getting politicians to listen this election season.
Image: Marijka Beauchesne
Marijka Beauchesne, a 27-year-old New Hampshire resident, supports Barack Obama in part because of his plans for making health care more readily affordable. "I'm hoping that his plan will help protect those whose employers cannot afford to provide health insurance. I don't need someone offering me free health insurance."Jennifer S. Altman
/ Source: Business Week

Earlier than most of his rivals, Barack Obama sensed that a youthquake was rumbling deep inside the American electorate. For months, his campaign has put a premium on reaching out to YouTube disaffecteds. So far the strategy is paying off, helped along, no doubt, by the candidate's hip, un-boomer persona.

The 46-year-old Illinois senator's surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses and close second-place finish to New York Senator Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary were fueled largely by hordes of twentysomethings in hoodies — the oft-pierced-and-tattooed generation that has come to be known as the Millennials, or Gen Y.

No one can predict with certainty how much influence this cohort will have on the coming election. After all, youth-backed candidates have faltered before. (Ask Howard Dean.) But the so-called echo baby boom has size on its side: nearly 43 million people aged 18 to 29, according to the Census Bureau, or 20 percent of registered voters. That and this group's hyperconnectedness (all those Facebook friends and MySpace pages) have convinced many pundits and economists that something seismic could be coming.

Across the political spectrum, they say, Millennials are mobilizing around the idea that the federal government's operating system is in dire need of a sweeping update. Iowa and New Hampshire proved that candidates ignore these voters at their peril. Youth turnout surged by 25 percentage points in the Granite State over 2004, according to the Student Public Interest Research Group, which is dedicated to getting young people to the polls.

John McCain and Clinton attracted most of the 25- to 29-year-olds, while Obama won over those aged 18 to 24. The candidates seem to understand that the Millennials could have a disproportionately loud voice in November and are starting to target them more assiduously. Note the near-comic zigzagging of campaigns after Iowa, when politicians refined their talking points to appeal to Gen Y. Clinton even replaced the oldsters surrounding her on camera during her Iowa concession speech (including a certain former President) with more youthful props at her New Hampshire victory.

‘It's going to be so difficult’
Gen Yers have plenty to be exercised about. They're inheriting an economy in which many of the things their parents took for granted are evaporating: company-provided health insurance, attainable housing, Social Security, affordable education, well-paying jobs. Weaned on self-esteem and jacked up on Digital Age entitlement, they take themselves seriously — and expect their elected representatives to do the same. "I think about the costs of having a family, and it's going to be so difficult," says Edward Summers, 25, an Obama supporter and assistant to the president of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "The government needs to intervene to revive the middle class."

At first, the Millennials were the Children of the Rising Dow. They grew up during the greatest period of wealth creation in modern history, but watched their elders consume resources and run up deficits as if the party would never end. Then came the dot-com crash, terrorism, war, climate change. Epic uncertainty informs their worldview. When asked to name the issues they care most deeply about, bread-and-butter concerns such as the economy, health care, and education routinely rank high. In an October Pew Research Center poll, 80 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 cited the economy as a "very important" concern, vs. 61 percent who felt the environment was a major issue — a telling finding given all the campus activism swirling around global warming these days.

Talk of recession, a weak dollar, and rising unemployment all animate Millennials' economic angst. But there's a lot more to it than that. Young people may not know that the inflation-adjusted earnings of new college grads have fallen 8.5 percent since 2000. But they can feel it in the deflated salaries and shriveled benefits they command, even in white-collar jobs. They don't need an economics degree to understand that the middle class is squeezed. This generation has grown up watching parents struggle to stretch a buck. They lived through the mass layoffs during the corporate scandals earlier this century.

"They saw their parents get burned," says Claudia Tattanelli, CEO of Universum Communications, a research firm that specializes in Millennial workplace issues. "They watched 401(k)s that never got paid, parents losing health plans."

As the government and employers shift more responsibility for benefits like health care and retirement onto the shoulders of individuals, many Millennials see themselves as unwitting victims. Although that trend has been building for decades, this may be the first generation to fully feel the great shift of risk in their bones. "This is a group of people who understand what it means to have no safety net," says Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University School of Law professor and co-author of "The Two-Income Trap".

"Millennials walk the economic high wire. If nothing goes wrong, they will make it safely to the other side. The slightest disruption — a layoff, an illness — and they are off the wire and falling hard," Warren added.

That sense of uncertainty is omnipresent for 22-year-old Tessa Jamison. Growing up, the George Mason University senior took ski trips with her family every winter. But after the dot-com bust, her father's insurance business in Virginia Beach, Va., suffered. The family's financial precariousness seemed compounded by the danger Jamison saw around her. She watched a friend's family struggle to pay the mother's monthly $6,000 chemotherapy bill after insurance wouldn't cover it. She saw her grandmother, a teacher for 30 years, unable to make ends meet on her pension and Social Security benefits. Jamison wants to go to law school but fears taking on the massive student loans that would require.

A more apt name for people like her may be Generation Debt. No group has ever started life so deeply in the hole, due mainly to mounting college costs, dwindling financial aid, and credit-card debt. The average college student now graduates with $20,000 in loans. Drew University sophomore Dominique Wilburn, 20, works three jobs — at a bookstore, as a resident assistant in a dorm, and at the school gym — to support herself and pay off her $41,000 debt. "In today's day and age, you have to have a degree, a graduate degree, to be competitive," says Wilburn.

What Millennials want done about student debt depends on which candidate they support. But Wilburn, a Clinton supporter, speaks for many of her peers when she says: "It's a huge issue for our generation and not enough attention is being paid to it."

Yet even a degree does not insulate twentysomethings from the vagaries of a winner-takes-all society. After graduation, Millennials move on to conduct job searches in what has become the new, global discount labor bazaar, competing against their pennies-on-the-dollar counterparts in China and India. Almost every young person you talk to knows a relative or family friend whose job has been sent overseas. Matthew Kracher, a 26-year-old who works for the Massachusetts state government and is leaning in favor of former Republican Governor Mitt Romney, says his sister lives in constant fear of losing her fashion industry job to outsourcing. "Entire companies get up and leave the U.S.," he says. "That's terrible."

Not counting on Social Security
Millennials also have to contend with the fact that the quality of jobs produced in the U.S. is not what it was. When their parents came of age, the paternalistic corporation was the dominant employer, offering career paths with generous, lifetime benefits and middle-class salaries. Today's biggest job growth is among the service jobs held by the working poor; the largest employer, Wal-Mart. That's a key reason why economist Jared Bernstein sketches out the Millennial plight as "starting lower, growing slower."

No wonder this generation is so obsessed with structure, savings, and security. Job recruiters say these are the primary themes in interviews. When asked about the most desirable attributes in an employer, students listed "good benefits package" far ahead of high salaries or opportunities for advancement, according to the National Association of Colleges & Employers. In part, that's because most expect Social Security to be dead and buried long before they reach retirement age. Dan Burke, a 28-year-old supporter of Representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.) who lives on Long Island and owns a Web retailer, believes it's unfair that he must contribute to Social Security. "We are forced to put our hard-earned money into it," he says. "And yet my generation won't see a penny of it."

And don't get these voters started on health care — they won't stop talking about it. Today's 19- to 29-year-olds make up the fastest-growing group of uninsureds in the U.S. "My friends can't afford to get sick," says 23-year-old Alana Kohn, a Clinton supporter and 2007 University of Michigan graduate. Most Millennials who consider themselves Democrats or independents support some kind of national health insurance program, which the leading Democratic candidates all favor. Erin Armstrong, a 20-year-old Obama supporter who attends St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., is on her parents' health plan but dreads the day she graduates and has to pay the premiums herself. "Health care is something that needs to be provided for every American at an affordable price," she says.

Given all the pressures and economic gloom, you might wonder why today's twentysomethings don't despair and disengage. There's a simple answer: They weren't raised that way. Growing up in the era of cater-to-kids politics, the V-Chip, and helicopter parenting, they were the most coddled generation ever, infused with their elders' belief that they possessed unique abilities. They also have been the most marketed-to generation, giving rise to their BS-despising, post-ironic disdain for any political solution — or candidate — that doesn't seem straight up. Thus their attraction so far to candidates, like Obama, McCain, and Paul, who they believe are outsiders representing change.

As any chief marketing officer knows, this generation believes in "owning" its favorite brands. Its members carry the same ethos to their political activism. Bringing the music and media industries to their knees was also empowering — providing Gen Yers with the self-confidence for a third-way, post-partisan manner of doing things. It's striking that the largest group of 18- to 24-year-olds, some 40 percent, consider themselves independent, according to a recent survey conducted by Harvard University, with 35 percent identifying as Democrats and 25 percent as Republicans. Millennials, like many Americans, may have lost faith in the political Establishment, but they have utter faith in themselves and their wiki-inspired abilities to get things done.

Vying for cred
For all these reasons, yesterday's solutions don't interest them. They understand the power of networked humanity. So a candidate who says, "Vote for me and I'll create a lot of programs," leaves them cold. One who says, "Join me, and together we can change this country and the world," takes a page right out of Web 2.0 and summons them to action.

To a greater or lesser degree, all of the campaigns have been targeting Millennials. Romney talks on the stump about how, as governor of Massachusetts, he instituted a scholarship program to defray college costs. All are positioning themselves as digitally aware. GOP hopeful and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee lists his favorite movies, which include "The Godfather" and "Casablanca", on his Facebook page. Romney's MySpace page features photos of backers who are far from the Young Republican stereotype. They include one young woman, calling herself Christena, shot topless from the back and sporting a massive tattoo and also a heavy-metal band from California called "Fatal Attraction."

But in the wake of Iowa and New Hampshire, expect to see the candidates scrambling after Gen Y voters as never before. No one, so far, is going after them harder than Clinton. The moment she got off her plane in New Hampshire, she told reporters: "This is especially about all of the young people in New Hampshire who need a President who won't just call for change, but a President who will produce change." Then her campaign began holding roundtables with young undecideds, including one on the campaign bus that featured the suddenly very visible Chelsea Clinton, a demographically correct age 27. The Clinton people also launched an "Ask Hillary" feature on their Web site allowing young voters to pose questions directly to the candidate. And before long Clinton, surrounded by what sometimes looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, began peppering her speeches with references to Gen Y.

They're all playing catch-up to Obama, of course. For more than a year, the senator's "adultescent" campaign staffers have been swarming college campuses in beat-up cars with college logos, collecting names, building databases, and creating a social networking juggernaut that would make Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg proud. The Obama youth movement may burn out before November. But by taking the economic concerns of America's twentysomethings seriously he has put the spotlight on a generation intent on wielding their power for change.