The economic outlook for millennials is bleak. 66% say they have no savings for retirement, yet many still believe they’ll be able to retire by 65.
This has lead to media outlets dubbing us “Generation Delusional.”
But can you blame us?
Our parents, after all, taught us that if we worked hard and went to college, we’d be able to retire at a relatively young age just we like planned to. But then the cost of college ballooned and the housing market faltered, crashed, and rose from the ashes. And our parents could not retire when they planned to, edging younger workers away from higher-level positions.
Most advice now says that if we want to retire at all, we’re going to need to work longer, earn more, spend less, and generally live a spartan, bleak life.
With or without avocado toast.
We’re also going to need to invest in our own economic literacy — because before long, the cost of college won’t be the biggest problem we’re facing.
Instead, we’ll be staring down the barrel of a shrinking social safety net.
President Barack Obama is often hailed as the first (and, I guess, only) “Millennial Whisperer” president. Though he, himself, wasn’t a member of my generation, he talked about the issues that had long been ignored by Boomer politicians: student debt, community college, and the way 20-somethings were often left adrift after school. He helped a generation of “young invincibles,” myself included, get health care.
Obama managed to get young people involved, fired up, and ready to go. But then, in 2016, we were somehow lost once again.
Pundits are quick to point to the way that a lack of millennial issues have cost other, politically-similar Democrats their own elections. According to this school of thought, by focusing too much on the older base, and the issues which have traditionally spoken to the most consistently Democratic voters, like union members, aging Gen Xers, etc., Democratic leaders missing out on the millennial vote.
They’re not talking to us. Or about us.
So we don’t show up to vote.
Instead, we tend to side with candidates who speak directly to the issues that impact us the most, like student debt, paid sick leave, and higher minimum wage.
But that anecdotal idea — that student debt and higher minimum wages are “millennial issues” — doesn’t actually pan out in the reality of our current economic climate.
We’re also the generation that is poised to have the worst income inequality.
In fact, it’s a caricature that has been written, it seems, by the most privileged of millennials. They’re the ones with college degrees and parents to live with who can be choosy about what we consider a “millennial” issue. They’re the ones who don’t face systemic barriers to voting — like a lack of access to polling places — but choose not to show up anyway because they don’t like the candidate choices.
After all, we’re also the generation that is poised to have the worst income inequality, wherein the most well-off will be able to define what “we” care about.
It’s also not exactly accurate that social security, retirement benefits, and strong unions are somehow not applicable or interesting enough to draw younger voters to the polls. Millennials are facing an impressive, daunting spate of economic matters that could be greatly alleviated by collective bargaining, portable benefits, and, yes, universal health care.
But for many of us, those issues aren’t a reason to show up.
And that’s deeply, deeply concerning.
If we, as millennials, have decided that things like social security are “old people issues” — that we can’t be bothered to show up until they’re addressed — then we’re in some real trouble.
In spite of the myriad think-pieces to the contrary, so-called “millennial issues,” like student debt, are neither the sole concern of young people, nor the concern of the majority of those younger people. In fact, the entire idea that the archetype of a forgotten millennial is an upper-middle class white kid with a degree they can’t afford is pretty much untrue.
The average millennial doesn’t have a college degree — they have taken some classes, but didn’t finish due to economic constraints or other issues. As a result, they make a scant $35,000 per year. Millennials overwhelmingly earn less than their parents generation or Gen X, despite having more education, and face greater systemic barriers, including increased racial diversity, which makes it more difficult to buy a home, establish equity, and more.
Waiting for lawmakers to talk about our specific issues before we get involved is a fool’s errand.
This is, of course, because of the kinds of economic and social policies which were favored for decades. From the massive deregulation, to the drug war, to welfare reform, to D.A.R.E. programs, Millennials were, in many ways, set up to do poorly in today’s economy.
Black and brown millennials were set up to do even worse, and to never get out of it.
Boomer economics got us into this. And confronting, addressing, and undoing these problems will get us out.
That means we need to care about these issues.
The issues which plague the average lower-income person of any age are the same that are dogging millennials. Which means that issues like strong unions, which have a proven track record of narrowing race and gender equity gaps, and retirement programs that will actually allow us to leave the workforce with a shred of dignity, really are our issues.
Much as we are the generation that has emphasized intersectionality in our feminism, we must also centralize it in our politics.
That means focusing on economic issues that may seem like “old economy” stuff — like food security, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding, regulatory measures which make workplaces safer and consumers more powerful — that can help to close the equity gap.
This is not to say that lawmakers on the stump should ignore so-called “millennial issues” like the minimum wage and college debt, though — because these issues impact Boomers and every other generation, too.
In fact, Boomers hold a great deal of student debt, which has made it even more difficult for them to retire. Some of they put off their retirement, while others may retire, collect a small pension, and re-enter the workforce in a lower-wage job.
This confluence creates a crush in the workplace. As older people stay in their jobs longer, the turnover required to make room for a new generation fails to present itself. Meanwhile, millennials are getting shunted into minimum wage jobs and kept there for a longer time.
However, this adds up for aging generations, who rely on the younger workforce to keep social security ranks full and need someone to buy their home when the time comes.
We should ask what we can do about it?
Similarly, even retirees have a vested interest in paid sick and family leave. They are relying more and more on the time and attention of the so-called “sandwich generation” — individuals with children and aging parents who need care.
Which means the issues most often attached to millennial interests — like labor rights for gig economy employees — are also highly critical for folks who are secondarily impacted.
Unfortunately, all of these issues require a particularly complicated frame of mind that has always been a challenge in politics. They require an understanding that just because a policy or a program doesn’t directly impact or benefit you, doesn’t mean it won’t impact or benefit you in the future.
This is where my plea to fellow millennials comes from.
Instead of waiting for lawmakers to talk about things you care about right now, I urge you to trace back the thread and discover how we got here in the first place.
And most importantly, we should ask what we can do about it?
People of all generations are most focused on the matters that face them every day.
Homeowners care more about property taxes than renters, even though renters bear the burden of those costs, as well. Individuals with chronic illnesses or prescriptions to particularly expensive drugs are the most concerned with lowering those costs. People who cut checks to a student loan holder every month are wondering when, if ever, they’ll get relief.
But waiting for lawmakers to talk about our specific issues before we get involved is a fool’s errand, because the economic is an ecosystem that impacts all of us, even if it’s not directly. Lawmakers and candidates talk about what they think will get votes — and so far, millennials haven’t reliably made it to the polls (though, often, that’s because of active efforts to keep them away).
Instead of waiting for lawmakers who talk about “our” issues, it may be time to show up for a more comprehensive view of the economy — and then, make damn sure that our elected officials show up for us.
Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images.