By BOB HERBERT
An important aspect of the presidential race so far has been the generational divide, with Barack Obama doing very well with younger voters and Hillary Clinton drawing strong support from those who are older. A similar split can be expected in a general election race between Senator Obama and John McCain.
However the election ultimately turns out, the Obama campaign has tapped into a constituency that holds powerful implications for the future of American politics. The youngest of these voters, those ranging in age from roughly the late teens to the early 30s, are part of the so-called millennial generation.
This is a generation that is in danger of being left out of the American dream — the first American generation to do less well economically than their parents. And that economic uncertainty appears to have played a big role in shaping their views of government and politics.
A number of studies, including new ones by the Center for American Progress in Washington and by Demos, a progressive think tank in New York, have shown that Americans in this age group are faced with a variety of challenges that are tougher than those faced by young adults over the past few decades. Among the challenges are worsening job prospects, lower rates of health insurance coverage and higher levels of debt.
We know that the generation immediately preceding the Millennials is struggling. Men who are now in their 30s, the prime age for raising a family, earn less money than members of their fathers’ generation did at the same age. In 1974, the median income for men in their 30s (using today’s inflation-adjusted dollars) was about $40,000. The figure for men in their 30s now is $35,000.
It’s not hard to understand why surveys show that overwhelming percentages of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. The American dream is on life support. Polls show that dwindling numbers of Americans (in some cases as few as a third of all respondents) believe their children will end up better off than they are.
The upshot of all this is ominous for conservatives. The number of young people in the millennial generation (loosely defined as those born in the 1980s and 90s) is somewhere between 80 million and 95 million. That represents a ton of potential votes — in this election and years to come. And the American Progress study shows that those young people do not feel that they have been treated kindly by conservative policies or principles.
According to the study: “Millennials mostly reject the conservative viewpoint that government is the problem, and that free markets always produce the best results for society. Indeed, Millennials’ views are more progressive than those of other age groups today, and are more progressive than previous generations when they were younger.”
The Demos study pointed to the very difficult employment environment confronting young adults. Fewer jobs offer the benefits of paid vacations, health coverage or pensions. And moving up the employment ladder is much harder.
As the study noted, “The well-paying middle-management jobs that characterized the work force up to the late-1970s have been eviscerated.”
The longer-term outlook is depressing.
Except for the expected continuing demand for registered nurses, the occupations projected to add the most jobs over the next several years do not offer much in the way of pay, benefits or career advancement. Demos listed the top five occupations in terms of anticipated job growth: registered nurses, retail sales, customer service reps, food preparers and office clerks.
Often saddled with debt, and with their job prospects gloomy, young Americans feel their government ought to be doing more to enhance their prospects. They want increased investments in education, health care and initiatives aimed at expanding the economy and fostering the growth of good jobs.
The American Progress study found that Millennials are more likely to support universal health coverage than any other age group over the past 30 years. By huge percentages, they want improvements in health coverage and support for education, even if it means increases in taxes.
The landscape is changing before our eyes. Younger voters struggling with the enormous costs of a college education, or trying to raise families in a bleak employment environment, or using their credit cards to cover everyday expenses like food or energy costs are not much interested in hearing that the government to which they pay taxes can do little or nothing to help them.
Whether young Americans can shift the balance of the presidential election is an open question. But there is very little doubt that over the next several years they are capable of loosening the tremendous grip that conservatives have had on the levers of American power.