With work still yet to be done, President Obama's State of the Union kept the momentum from the 2008 election going for young Americans.
In November 2008, I voted in my first presidential election. The summer had been a brutal battle for the Democratic nomination, and young people were campaigning in record numbers to take hold of our futures (and, of course, that of "Joe the Plumber"). That fall, approximately 23 million young people comprised almost two-thirds of the overall 5.4 million voter turnout increase. NDN states that the Millennial Generation (born 1978 - 2000) voted for Barack Obama by a 34-point margin, a 25-point increase from John Kerry's support in 2004.
Nearly four years later, the State of the Union address reminded me of the great sense of duty we felt to turn our country around. Here stood a president who had showed us that the future of our country was in our hands but fell victim to the realities of catalyzing significant political change.
At the close of his address, Obama used the capture of Osama bin Laden to allude to the enlightened self-interest lost in Congress: "One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn't deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job: the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other, because you can't charge up those stairs into darkness and danger unless you know that there's somebody behind you watching your back."
Obama's reference was intended to inspire Congress to overcome its partisan gridlock, but its expression on a national platform illuminated more than a slap on the wrist to politicians who had acted selfishly since the last State of the Union address. It was all too obvious that the chamber full of culturally polarized baby boomers, apathetic to the president's comments, maintains a very different perspective on the role of the individual in society than my generation does.
The president's steadfast, civic-minded tone on Tuesday reflected one that inspired Millennials to act in 2008 and powerfully endures today. Many Millennials became quickly disenchanted by Washington's realities, but have continued to turn out in record numbers to enter public service. In 2009, 16 percent more recent college graduates worked for the federal government than in the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups, according to the American Community Survey of the Census Bureau. Applications to AmeriCorps and City Year tripled, and interest in Teach for America and the Peace Corps also skyrocketed.
For many of today's Americans in our early twenties, there is no alternative to taking an active role in civil society. We are skeptical that America will always be #1 because we don't remember what life was like before 9/11 and came of age during a fiscal crisis.
The realities facing our progressive and socially conscious generation breed a sense of emergency. In the fall of 2011, the media focused on the idea of a "lost generation" of young adults holding undergraduate and master's degrees, unable to both find employment and advance in the workplace. Young people wonder if public service will continue to be an option as the wealth gap grows larger and higher education becomes more expensive.
Tuesday night, the Obama administration sought to justify our continual investment of ourselves in the future of the nation, calling upon Congress to realize their self-interest and describing promises that make young voters swoon. We elected him in 2008, and he wants to keep our support for the upcoming 2012 standoff. If fulfilled, Obama's solutions could lead to a prosperous Millennial America.
American Manufacturing: Obama's blueprint for revitalizing the American middle class began with manufacturing, highlighting a large productivity increase in science and technology industries. He referenced a national skills training program, which would partner with community colleges to transform them into career centers for emerging industries. Moreover, he outlined tax incentives for companies to "in-source," continue manufacturing domestically, and relocate to communities that lost factories throughout the recession.
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With the gradual decline of manufacturing and rise of the knowledge-based economy, the opportunity to pursue the "American Dream" has increasingly relied on obtaining a college degree. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernake said in a "60 Minutes" interview that he believes the foremost driver of a rapidly expanding American wealth gap is education disparity. He stated that for college graduates the current unemployment rate is 5 percent, but for those without a degree it's 10 percent. Unfortunately, the majority of educations are funded by borrowed money. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 61 percent of students and their families at public four-year institutions, 70.6 percent at private non-profit universities, and 97 percent at private for-profit schools accrue educational debt. A college degree is becoming more indispensable, but less affordable.
This phenomenon has resulted in a saturated job market, full of young adults with bachelor's and master's degrees deep in debt. The revitalization of American manufacturing might give millions of young people the opportunity to pursue a productive and lucrative lifestyle without a college diploma and the rising debt that comes with it. In the short term, this means offering these national training opportunities through community colleges to recent high school graduates in underserved areas.
Education: While skills-based jobs should be more available to young people, higher education should be accessible. Obama rightfully pointed out that Americans owe more in tuition debt than in credit card debt, and interest rates on student loans are slated to double in July. He conveniently neglected to point out that interest on graduate Stafford loans had been altered this year in order to help balance the budget, however.
Many Millennials believe access to higher education to be the single biggest issue of our generation as tuition increases (and exponentially rising text book costs) threatens the accessibility of education to the middle class and burdens graduates with immense debt. Obama called for extending the tuition tax credit, doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years, and requiring that states prioritize student aid in their budgets. Finally, he stated, "Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down."
While these reform proposals are good, we should challenge leaders to go one step further and address the current student debt crisis. Specifically, the administration should propose better regulation of the private student loan industry to account for public service time and income-calculated minimum payments. Longer term solutions are on the rise, but a short-term solution to student debt would help alleviate a generation's fear of being economically unviable.
Trade and International Cooperation: Millennial America desperately needs a larger job market for their skills, with the highest number of college degrees compared to any other generation. However, we aren't willing to sacrifice the global perspective and civic-minded values we have developed and displayed prominently through consumer patterns.
Obama announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate unfair or unlawful trade practices. He stated enthusiastically, "Our workers are the most productive on Earth, and if the playing field is level, I promise you -- America will always win." Hopefully, this unit will work alongside the World Trade Organization to promote fair trade principles for all countries. Just execution of such a governmental entity will include cooperation with international trade agreements, construction of new, progressive principles, and full participation in multilateral negotiations.
The end of the State of the Union is traditionally a "USA!" rally, but exiting Iraq and the fall of Osama bin Laden gave a little extra enthusiasm. According to the Greenberg Millennial Study, cited in Generation We, 68 percent of American Millennials questioned believe the generation of Americans under 30 has a great deal or a fair amount in common with young adults of their generation in other countries. Opportunities to collaborate with foreign universities and students are abundant, and rising leaders know the importance of not alienating our competitors. The administration should tread carefully in advancing a progressive foreign policy that emphasizes multilateral cooperation, aligning with its young supporters globalized perspectives.
Monika Johnson is the co-Chapter Head for the Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline in Washington, DC and a member of the Pipeline Advisory Committee.