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Restoration Calls

Young Americans Turned Apathetic By Washington Squabbling, Bad Economy

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

photo of Lara Seligman
October 25, 2012

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.

***

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.’ ”

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.

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.

 

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