The fate of the U.S. economy may depend on that fresh-faced college grad who is stuck making your latte.
Millennials have received plenty of media scrutiny for their Internet addictions, their tendency to crash at their parents’ house instead of getting a place of their own, and their unique mix of optimism, openness, and learned cynicism.
Their politics have been shaped by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the turmoil of an Iraq War that they largely experienced on TV screens, and the 2008 financial crisis that trapped them in dead-end jobs.
Yet, amazingly, any attempt to fix the deficit or reduce the cost of health care so that U.S. prosperity might continue rests on the shoulders of these 18-to-34-year-olds. Obamacare relies on 2.7 million of them enrolling for insurance coverage at the new government exchanges opening in October, while the congressional Republican budget plan asks them to pay the same amount in taxes as the current projections but get less from the government in return.
Here are three factors that will shape whether the millennials – like past generations – can save the country:
THEY NEED MORE MONEY … SOON
Wages will decide everything – how many will default on their student loans, how much money they can save for a home, even how much they will pay in taxes to the federal government.
It all depends on rising paychecks. Without higher salaries for millennials, baby boomers will struggle to sell their houses to a younger generation. New parents cannot save for their own children’s education.
The trouble is that young college graduates working full-time earned, on average, $34,500 last year, according to the progressive Economic Policy Institute. Adjusting for inflation over the past dozen years, this translates into a shocking loss of $3,200.
Their predicament is similar to that of older workers also coping with unemployment and declining salaries, except that this young generation must ultimately shoulder the costs of entitlement programs such as Medicare as their parents retire.
“This is an unmitigated disaster,” said EPI economist Heidi Shierholz. “At a time like this, it’s the younger workers being screwed by thelack of broad-base demand for work to be done.”
The value of a college degree has dropped, even if it remains a far better bet than the alternative of skipping higher education. Economic research shows that the after-affects of entering the workforce in a bad economy can cause more than 10 years of depressed wages.
These analyses, however, largely come from the 1981 recession, which pales in comparison to the 2008 financial crisis and a recovery that remains unfinished after four years.
“A huge swath of these young people just aren’t going to get the jobs that [can] set them up on their career path,” Shierholz said. “That will have a lasting impact.”
Stagnant incomes are not a foregone conclusion.
The generation that graduated into the Great Depression – after having survived World War II – enjoyed the prosperity of the 1950s or 1960s. But when asked what turned around that situation, Shierholz said, “We don’t have good clean data going back that far.”
THEY MUST FORM NEW HOUSEHOLDS
Most eyeballs are focused on home prices. The surge over the past year has become a source of economic strength. But a solid predictor of whether the comeback has legs is measured by the formation of new households.
According to a study published by the regional Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland Federal Reserve, 18-to-34 year-olds formed 1.9 million fewer households in 2011 than they should have under normal economic conditions.
This means that more millennials returned to their childhood bedrooms, or crowded into apartments with roommates.
The housing picture has brightened since 2011, but younger Americans are neither moving out nor moving up. Just 520,000 more households were established between the first quarters of 2012 and 2013. The share of 18-to-34 year-olds as heads of household fell slightly, to 37 percent from 37.1 percent.
They Must Navigate Tough Political Demographics.
Politicians tends to cater to their bases of power, which is why trimming Medicare benefits for existing retirees is the electoral equivalent of playing with fire.
By 2024, millennials will comprise about 35 percent of the electorate, roughly the same share as the baby boomers, according to the Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. This matters because current budget projections have this generation financing the Social Security and Medicare benefits of their parents, but without any evidence that they will have the financial means to do so.
Raised in an ethnically diverse society and believing in tolerance – about 40 percent of millennials are minorities – this generation naturally broke for President Obama, with 60 percent voting last November to return him to the White House.
Some Republicans believe this group remains up for grabs.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, citing a poll by CNN and ORC International, noted last month that just 49 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds described Obama as honest and trustworthy, compared to 67 percent in May. That was before confidence in the administration was shaken by a slew of controversies involving the president’s ability to manage the IRS and a national security state that has been gathering the email and phone data of most Americans.
Still, Pollster John Zogby does not see the generation as crossing over to the GOP anytime soon.
“Demographically, at least for a while, there is more of an alignment with the Democratic Party, but a lot of that is going to be by default,” said Zogby, co-author of a new book about millennials called The First Globals.
There is a vocal minority within this age group who lean toward libertarian ideals, a group Zogby identifies as “College Educated, Not Going Anywhere.” They have yet to find the jobs that match the expectations, SAT tutoring, and Suzuki violin lessons of their childhood.
But on the whole, “immigration, multiculturalism, multi-nationalism – that’s who they are,” said Zogby, explaining that Republican politicians are still preoccupied by the question of “who is the real conservative.”
Millennials, however, have yet to assert themselves into the entitlement debate. Republicans have proposed fixes to Medicare that require this generation to pay into the existing system for their parents and grandparents, with the promise of a highly privatized form of Medicare awaiting them that is less generous in its payouts.
Democrats have stiff-armed any changes at all to the program, increasing the possibility of conflict between two generations that Zogby described as natural allies otherwise.
“That is what builds intergenerational resentment,” Zogby said. “We’re just starting to see it.”