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Restoration Calls

Young Americans Turned Apathetic By Washington Squabbling, Bad Economy

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Matthew Zaccagni, 23, graduated from LaSalle University in 2011 and now lives in New York City.

Every weekday at the crack of dawn, David Simms wakes up in his childhood bedroom. If he can find an empty seat in the dim, yellow lighting of the crowded Metro car he rides to work, he skims his textbook. He gets to his desk at Reznick Think Energy in Bethesda, Md., at 8:40 a.m., where he cranks out reports on the state of the solar and biomass industries until 5 p.m., for intern’s wages. Every evening, he takes the Metro to White Flint, then drives to Gaithersburg for three hours of classes that will count toward the master’s degrees that Simms hopes will catch the eye of a full-time employer.

By the time the 26-year-old returns to his parents’ house in Rockville, Md., it is almost 10 p.m. But before he can crawl into bed and sleep off the day, he must eat dinner with his parents, study, and walk Skooby, the family dog. And no matter what time he finishes his chores and homework, he always calls his girlfriend, Jennifer, who lives in Florida.

 

“I can count on one hand the nights I haven’t talked to her,” Simms, a wiry young man with a neatly trimmed brown beard, says of the woman he has been with for over three years. “I can’t wait to be with her. It is really a constant dream to live with her.”

That dream still seems far off, and Simms—who graduated from Emory University in 2008, at the start of the Great Recession—is growing more and more frustrated. He is frustrated that he has been living with his parents for the past year so he can get a handle on his student debt and work his way through graduate school. He is frustrated that although the internship at Reznick was supposed to turn into a full-time consulting job, the company doesn’t have enough money to take him on.

Simms is frustrated that the federal government is doing very little to help him and his fellow young workers who graduated into the worst job market in decades. He is discouraged by the ever-increasing cost of education, the lack of jobs for young people, and the sacrifices he has been forced to make to pursue his career. When he looks at Washington, he doesn’t see problem-solving, just agenda-pushing, political posturing, and a lack of forward thinking on issues that are critical to young people, such as student-loan rates.

 

The frustration has built to this: Simms might not bother to vote this year—and the same may be true for millions of his generational peers.

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As the youth of America struggle with crushing student debt and record-high unemployment, many recent college graduates like Simms are increasingly cynical toward a government they see as misguided, gridlocked, and ripe with broken promises. With an election looming, that pessimism brings into sharp focus the irony that America’s most plugged-in generation is fast becoming Generation Tuned-Out.

In a phenomenon that threatens to repeat itself this fall, many discontented young people sat out the 2010 midterm elections, which were instead dominated by an older, wealthier electorate. An analysis of that election by Project Vote, a nonprofit organization that promotes voting in historically underrepresented communities, shows that, while overall turnout followed patterns typical of past midterm elections, several features stood out: Senior citizens turned out in force; the number of ballots cast by voters from households making more than $200,000 a year increased by 68 percent compared with 2006; and minority and youth voter turnout dropped.

 

The trends appear to be worsening for millennials. Data from Gallup and the Public Religion Research Institute indicate that fewer young people plan to vote in the upcoming election. Gallup found that just 58 percent of young voters say they will “definitely vote” this fall, down from 81 percent in October 2004 and 78 percent in October 2008.

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center survey shows that young voters are generally less engaged in politics than they were in 2008. The proportion of young voters expressing increased interest in politics this year has plummeted: At this time in 2008, 69 percent of voters under 30 said they were more interested in politics than four years prior, while today, just 52 percent of that age group expressed an increased interest.

“The millennial generation is characterized by a pessimism about the future and a mistrust of government institutions,” says Trey Grayson, director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Since so many young voters have grown up in a society riddled with political dysfunction, he adds, such apathy should come as no surprise. “For young voters, there is a third candidate in this race,” Grayson says, “and it’s ‘stay home.’ ”

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That declining enthusiasm poses huge concerns for President Obama, who turned out young voters in abnormally high numbers in 2008, then won overwhelmingly among them.

But the bigger risks are for a young generation that suddenly appears to be in danger of ceding critical decisions about its future to an increasingly graying electorate.

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