As President Obama dusts off his 2008 theme of “hope” in anticipation of his reelection campaign, he has a problem to get around: Among young voters, one of his most crucial constituencies, hope is, like, so yesterday.
A new report published jointly by Demos, a liberal think tank, and Young Invincibles, an advocacy group for young adults, highlights the dramatic effects of the Great Recession on the country’s youngest workers. “The State of Young America” says that the economic slowdown has battered Americans ages 18 to 34, both in terms of their current employment prospects and their hopes for tomorrow.
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The two groups estimate underemployment at 16 percent for 25- to 34-year-olds and a troubling 29 percent for adults under 25. The last time the Bureau of Labor Statistics measured unemployment, in September, the rate for adults ages 18 to 34 was 12.1 percent, well above the 9.1 percent national average. And that did not take into account the unemployed in that age bracket who have stopped seeking work.
Polling conducted for the report demonstrates the pernicious effects of the job shortage. Of the unemployed young adults surveyed, less than half – 48 percent – expressed optimism about finding a job within the next six months. Respondents with jobs had a related problem: With employment in short supply, their wages are suffering. Fifty-six percent of the 872 people surveyed said that their yearly incomes fall under $30,000.
It is less than surprising, then, that the slow start to adult life has many young adults thinking pessimistically about their futures. Just 22 percent of those surveyed said they expected their generation to be better off than their parents’ generation. Almost half said they expect to be worse off, a shocking number in a country where the promise of a better tomorrow is one of the cornerstones of the national mythology.
In the poll, four out of 10 young adults pin the blame on endemic inequality, agreeing with the statement that if you are born into one economic class, you are likely to stay there.
The obvious economic implications of the report represent a political problem for Obama, who leaned heavily on the youth vote in 2008 but has backslid sharply among the demographic, as he has nearly across the board. According to exit polls, Obama won two-thirds of the 18 to 29 vote in 2008. In this week’s United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection poll, only 47 percent of that age group said they wanted to see the president reelected.
In order to win reelection, Obama not only has to convince more of this group that he deserves a second term, he has to persuade them that it is worth voting at all. The 18-to-29 share of the electorate in the 2010 midterms was a third smaller than in 2008, declining from 18 percent of all voters to 12 percent.
At National Journal’s Election Preview event on Tuesday, Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said that of all the puzzles facing Obama’s campaign in the coming year, replicating “the lopsidedness of the youth vote” in 2008 might be the hardest to solve. “Young people had an excitement about President Obama, and about the change that they hoped would occur under him, that simply doesn’t exist anymore,” Garin said. In his firm’s focus groups, “what they say is, ‘We were unrealistic then, more realistic now.’ ”
Young adults have retained at least one element of optimism, though. When asked if the American dream is still available for their generation, 69 percent of the poll respondents said yes, despite their gloomy responses to the other questions. Aaron Smith, the executive director of Young Invincibles, notes that his generation is well-suited – diverse, entrepreneurial, and tech-savvy, among other attributes – for the emerging future. “Yes, there are long-term challenges,” Smith said, “But there’s hope if we can find the political will to solve problems.”
In short, young adults have time to correct their slow start. Whether President Obama shares that opportunity is the open question.
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