In four years, we’ve gone from hope and change to perseverance.
Although millennials were a core part of President Barack Obama’s winning coalition in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, young people continue to struggle in our beleaguered economy. Worse, there is little reason for optimism that their prospects will brighten any time soon and much reason to expect that their financial burdens will increase even more. Our persistently gloomy economy is one obstacle to millennials’ advancement, but Obama’s second-term plans are another.
According to Generation Opportunity, the unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds in February was 12.5 percent. If you count the additional 1.7 million young Americans who have quit even looking for jobs, the unemployment rate jumps to 16.2 percent — meaning that nearly one in six young people is out of work. And this doesn’t even include all of the underemployed millennials — all of those who are working part-time in retail, for example, instead of using their degrees to start the careers of their dreams.
Younger workers lucky enough to have jobs face a tightening monthly budget. January brought a 2 percent reduction in take-home pay as the Social Security payroll tax holiday expired. This, along with student loan repayments and rising costs of gas and food, means that many millennials are just scraping by and can’t afford to live on their own.
Sadly, it seems as if each new policy proposal from the White House leads to fewer, rather than more, job opportunities and increases the financial burden on young people.
Take the Affordable Care Act, for example. It was praised as a step toward delivering affordable health insurance for everyone. According to a comprehensive joint House-Senate report, younger Americans could see their premiums climb by as much as 189 percent. Another study predicts a 42 percent increase for those between the ages of 21 and 29 due to the Affordable Care Act’s age rating restriction. This restriction limits the amount insurers can charge older people — who have considerably higher health care costs — to a maximum of three times the rate charged to younger people. The study also predicts that single people in their 30s purchasing coverage can expect more than a 30 percent increase in premium costs. Why should young people — who also tend to be poorer people — bear more of the financial cost of health care? Is this the hope and change we were promised?
During the State of the Union, the president proposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour. Such mandates are often billed as a boon to the young and poor, yet out-of-work millennials know differently. Making it more expensive to hire people means fewer first jobs. Of course millennials want to earn more than $7.25 an hour, but those first, lowest-paying jobs tend to be more about skill-building and work experience. They are a step on a pathway up the economic ladder. Making it more expensive for a business to offer such positions means that fewer Americans will be getting on the economic ladder at all.
Morehouse College recently announced that Obama will speak at its commencement ceremony in May. Expect him to offer an inspirational address and promise a brighter future for this year’s graduates. But college seniors and other young people would benefit from some candid advice that Obama offered Barnard College students last year at commencement:
“My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”
Unemployed Americans of all ages might wish that the president himself would learn from his mistakes — the failed economic policies that have made this economic downturn so intractable. Undoubtedly, encouraging young people to embrace the virtue of perseverance is an appropriate message as students transition into a new phase of life. Such advice may be particularly helpful to this generation of young people as they prepare to endure the next four years under President Obama. Perseverance, and a lot of it, certainly will be required.
Karin Agness, who founded the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW), is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and the director of academic programs at the American Enterprise Institute. She earned her undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Virginia.