Our government is screwing millennials. No, this isn't an Anthony Weiner joke. I'm referring to the hopeless cycle of un- and under-employment that's impacting our nation's 18-29-year-olds and the total lack of political will to address (much less solve) it. Add the policies and systems that silence our concerns from policy debate to the mix, and you have a screwing that would make Bill Clinton blush.
Allow me to elaborate. The pains of the recession are starting to ease, but the unemployment rate for millennials still sits at close to 12%. That's significantly higher than the 7.6% rate for the general U.S. population, and it doesn't account for the 40% of college graduates who are underemployed.
So how did we, children raised drinking the meritocracy Kool-Aid, get into this mess? There are three steps the government took to ensure that millennials are completely and royally screwed in the recession recovery. Allow me to explain:
The U.S. Treasury made the strategic decision to bail out Wall Street with fixed-rate loans of less than 1% because they were "too big to fail." Economists from different sides of the aisle will argue about the necessity and effectiveness of that bailout, but that debate merely detracts from the conversation we should be having — what will the impact be if the millennials fail — fail to become productive members of democratic society. Fail to pull themselves out of student debt to support themselves and their aging parents. Fail to engage in a democracy that has disenfranchised them, disappointed them, and quite frankly, embarrassed them.
This is not just a hypothetical concern. Student loan debt is at an all-time high, exceeding $1 trillion dollars and surpassing total credit card debt nationwide. The future of these loans loom in uncertainty, as the rates are set to double from 3.4% to 6.8% on July 1 if Congress can't agree on proposal to stop that from happening. As we learned from the spectacular disaster knows as the Sequester, we can't count on Congress to agree on anything.
It's not just student loan rates which are a source of confusion and uncertainty for millennials and their families. The cost of U.S. public universities has steadily climbed at an average rate of 6% a year over the last decade. The lack of certainty about the cost of college and loans, coupled with the growing doubt that a college degree will translate to a well-paid job, is a paralyzing force for many young people considering taking on debt to afford college.
The challenges of long-term unemployment, unaffordable education, and generally uncertain futures are big, but they're not unsolvable. With some compromise and creativity on the part of our elected officials, solutions are within reach. I mean, come on — we got ourselves out of the Great Depression, the Cold War, and that awkward 80s parachute pants fad — we have to be able to figure out how to provide affordable higher education, right?
That's why it’s so disheartening that when Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (D), scheduled a Joint Economic Committee hearing to address long-term unemployment in this country, just four of the committee's 20 members showed up (and three of them were late). No Republicans even bothered to come.
Long-term unemployment (defined by six-months or longer without a job) is a different beast that short-term joblessness. Confidence and skills shrivel up, resume gaps inspire skepticism in potential employers, and industries move on. Economic recovery alone will not solve the problem.
Millenials have significantly higher unemployment rates than the general population. We also have less work experience and smaller networks to draw from. The issue of long-term unemployment is one that affects us arguably more than any other segment of the population. And the leaders we have elected can't even be bothered to show up to discuss the issue.
The fault does not solely rest on the shoulders of the legislative branch of government. Our judicial system has perpetuated copious election spending by ineffectively regulating the source and amount of campaign donations. This trend came to a head in 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, effectively saying that, from here on out, politics are a money-takes-all game.
This limitless cash influx means that elections are extraordinarily expensive to participate in, much less win. Donations from the average person or organization are next to meaningless, as they're teeny drops in big buckets dominated by corporations and super PACs. In order for politicians to get elected, they have to focus on raising gluttonous amounts of money from the richest people, corporations, and interest groups in America. No one else is powerful enough (read: rich enough) to make a difference.
When the political system dictates that winners must depend on contributions from the richest 1%, it's no surprise that the issues our politicians focus on are skewed. Unfortunately, the biggest problems this country faces do not always align with the priorities and needs of our wealthiest citizens. You simply can't have an effective, representative democracy when the elected representatives are incentivized to only cater to the top 1%.
The huge financial burden of running for office, coupled with short election cycles, also means that most politicians are constantly in campaign mode. Their main focus is fundraising, not thinking critically about the difficult issues that millennials and Americans at large are facing. There are not adequate incentives in place to encourage them to take on difficult political decisions that are critical for long-term progress (as opposed to short-term political wins).
Our government needs an attitude adjustment when it comes to the issues affecting millennials. Our elected officials need to understand that we are a voting block to be reckoned with, and that our job, debt, and education crises are matters of national security. They also need to feel a sense of urgency around fixing it. They can take steps in the right direction by ensuring that loans and public education are predictable and affordable — and by renewing our confidence that they're both interested in and capable of fixing what's broken.
These issues, by the way, do not just affect millennials. As we're saddled with more student debt than ever in the history of the country, our Baby Boomer parents are beginning to age. They will depend on us to support them more than ever before in the absence of a strong Social Security system. It's in everyone’s best interest to encourage our government to invest in Millennial success sooner, rather than later.