Almost every week provides more evidence of the political system bending toward the cultural preferences of the massive millennial generation. But evidence is accumulating just as quickly of the system's failure to respond to its economic needs.
The millennial generation, comprising the 90 million-plus young people born from 1982 to 2002, is now the nation's largest. The latest accommodation to their social attitudes came Wednesday when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an executive order permitting medical marijuana for seriously ill patients. Cuomo's order was relatively restrictive, but his decision established a beachhead for further loosening of the state's laws. And it continued a national trend toward expanded availability: 21 states now allow access to medical marijuana. Eight of them have established those rules just since 2009. In 2012, voters in Washington state and Colorado became the first to approve recreational marijuana use.
Gay marriage, another millennial cultural cause, is advancing even faster. Seventeen states now permit it. Before 2012, no state had approved a ballot initiative to allow such marriages, but voters that year did so in Maine, Maryland, and Washington state. Since then, judicial decision or legislative action has authorized gay marriage in eight more states, including California, Illinois, and New Jersey. Further state-level gains may come more slowly, because most of the remaining bans are in conservative red states. But the direction of policy is unmistakable and irreversible toward greater acceptance of gay unions.
Millennials, of course, are not the only supporters of these changes; nor are they especially prominent in the groups that have pushed them. But they are functioning as a tipping point in the debates nonetheless.
Polling last year by the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of millennials support legalizing marijuana and slightly more back same-sex marriages; in each case, that was more than any older generation. The clear shift in attitudes has seeded a belief among political leaders that change on these issues is inevitable because public opinion, over time, will only tilt further as more millennials (and their younger siblings) enter the electorate. "There is a sense that where millennials are on a lot of these cultural issues is where things will go for years," says Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster who studies young voters.
But if the sun is shining for millennials on the cultural front, their economic forecast remains wintry. On Tuesday, Young Invincibles, a group that advocates for young adults, issued a bracing report that noted the unemployment rate for millennials (which it defined as workers 18-34) has remained stuck in double-digits for 70 consecutive months. Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce has likewise found young workers today losing ground compared with previous generations in wages, workforce participation, and net worth, with the losses deepest for younger men. Add in mounting student debt, as well as delays in family formation and homeownership, and phrases like "lost generation" don't seem excessive.
In important ways, President Obama has aimed his agenda toward this generation. Culturally, he's almost invariably aligned with them (even on marijuana legalization, the Justice Department has essentially thrown up its hands). He has promoted policies to reduce student debt, increase pressure on colleges to improve graduation rates, and expand national service—an attractive option for a civic-minded generation that has produced roughly six applications for every spot available in AmeriCorps. Obama's health care bill involves more complex generational accounting: It does require some healthy young people to buy more comprehensive (and expensive) insurance than they might prefer, but it also significantly shifts resources down the generational ladder by restraining Medicare spending to help fund subsidies for the working-age uninsured. The mandate that insurers allow children to stay on their parents' policies until age 26 has already covered 3.1 million millennials.
Obama's problem is scale. Nothing on that list sufficiently confronts the magnitude of the employment crisis facing younger workers. Nor has he sufficiently challenged the federal budget's tilt from young to old, as retiring baby boomers swell spending on seniors and squeeze discretionary programs (like education and research) that benefit future generations. Congressional Republicans have shown somewhat more willingness to confront those entitlement costs, but they would direct the savings toward tax cuts that mostly benefit older workers—and that failed to produce consistent job growth under George W. Bush.
Cultural affinity still provides a political edge for Democrats (millennials gave Obama two-thirds of their votes in 2008 and three-fifths in 2012). But to cement that loyalty, the party "has to make the economy work for more people," says Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic group that studies the generation.
The larger issue transcends political advantage. Neither party is displaying sufficient urgency about a generational economic crisis that for too many young people will cascade through their lives with lower wages and diminished opportunities. The political system's response to the millennials' economic distress must be something more than, as a modern Marie Antoinette might put it, to let them smoke pot.
Christie's Never-Ending Sorry
This article appears in the January 11, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Young and Restless.