How Millennials Have Already Reshaped Politics

Political parties are taking young people’s policy preferences into account, but that doesn’t mean they’re getting everything they want.

In this Dec. 5, 2013, photo, Tyler, no last name given, inspects plants as they mature at the Medicine Man dispensary and grow operation in northeast Denver. As Colorado prepares to be the first in the nation to allow recreational pot sales, opening Jan. 1, hopeful retailers are investing their fortunes into the legal recreational pot world _ all for a chance to 
Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 10, 2014, midnight

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.

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