If young voters tune out, they are leaving their future in the hands of an older generation that won’t be around to see much of it. Just this month, AARP, the lobby group representing older Americans, urged lawmakers not to renew the payroll-tax holiday that is set to expire at the end of the year because of concerns that further extensions of the cut could erode funds for Social Security. That’s all well and good for retirees, but if the cut is not extended, working Americans and those entering the workforce will see their payroll tax spike from 4.2 percent to 6.2 percent, ending a significant economic relief for more than 150 million Americans.
Meanwhile, young voters turned a blind eye as the midterm elections swept the most unpopular Congress in nearly four decades into power. Young people will face the consequences and foot the bill for a tomorrow that the electorate chooses today. If young people don’t stand up for their needs, no one else will; politicians don’t pander to groups who don’t vote.
Even so, it’s not hard to see why young people are so discouraged. The recession hit them particularly hard, and with the ever-fragile recovery showing signs of a slowdown, the youth unemployment rate was hovering at 15.5 percent in September (down significantly, like the national unemployment rate, from 16.8 percent in August). Meanwhile, Americans now owe about $1 trillion in student loans, and that number is growing.
In a rare bipartisan moment, Congress recently reached a last-minute deal to freeze rates for federal undergraduate loans at 3.4 percent. But an undergraduate degree is no longer enough to get a good job in most specialty fields, so more and more young people are opting for graduate school. Meanwhile, postsecondary students are getting less federal help: The Budget Control Act of 2011 eliminated graduate-student loan subsidies, meaning that any new Stafford loans they take out will accrue interest at a fixed rate of 6.8 percent as the students work toward their degrees.
Simms, who is taking out thousands of dollars in student loans to pay for his graduate degrees, says there’s no way he could have paid the bills if he hadn’t chosen to live at home. But the nagging dependence on his parents’ generosity and constant lack of privacy is “not conducive to feeling like a grown-up person,” he says.
Even though he will have two postsecondary degrees from a prestigious university once he finishes school next year, Simms doubts he will be able to move out of his parents’ house anytime soon. Even if he manages to find a well-paying job after graduation, he is anxious that paying for his own place will cut into the money that he should put toward his debt.
Like so many young people, Simms’s life seems on hold. For now, he is waiting—to finish school, to find a better job, for both he and Jennifer to be financially stable enough to move in together.
“I only have control of a little bit of what is going on,” Simms said. “So I just float on and wait” for things to come together.
Other, similarly disenchanted young people say politics is worth less of their time now than it once was.
The last time Matthew Zaccagni visited his childhood home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, he was shocked by the state of his hometown. Vacant shop windows rose above the sidewalks and red “for sale” signs glared at him from once-friendly yards. Everywhere he looked, signs of depression were rampant—and his onetime optimism was punctured.
“Across the board, Obama made these great promises,” says the tall, upright young man with prominent dark eyebrows and a broad, welcoming smile. “He stopped what could have been a lot worse, but things haven’t gotten a lot better.”
Zaccagni, who graduated from LaSalle University last May, recalls working in the Obama campaign’s office in Philadelphia throughout most of 2008. Inspired by the then-senator’s policies and dedication, particularly to gay rights, Zaccagni organized voter registration, helped to coordinate the city’s get-out-the-vote effort, and made countless phone calls for the campaign.
He remembers a “sense of energy, sense of pride” among young people in the fall of 2008, and recalls how easy it was to get his peers to volunteer for the senator who promised to change Washington for the better. But today, he and his friends feel disillusioned with the fruits of the president’s campaign of “hope and change” and weighed down by a struggling economy.
Zaccagni, now 23, is now living in a small apartment with his partner in Hell’s Kitchen, and working full-time at a communications firm. He needs the job to pay off $22,000 in student loans and save for graduate school, but while he says his position is a great first step, it’s not where he sees himself down the road.
He says he doesn’t have the time, energy, or desire to work for the campaign this year. But at least, he says, he plans to vote.