Young Americans are facing higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and student loan debt than the two generations before them, and their predicament is fueling the view that the American Dream is bankrupt, according to the authors of a new State of the Millennial Report.
Generation Opportunity, a conservative/libertarian advocacy group primarily funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers, Freedom Partners and TC4 Trust, issued its annual state report card for the millennial generation ahead of President Barack Obama's final State of the Union speech on Tuesday, in which he is expected to tout his administration's support of students and its record in helping to reduce education debt.
The president is also expected to highlight in his address two solid years of jobs growth under his administration, which has pushed unemployment down to 5 percent overall. But in comparison to the national average, people between the ages of 18 and 29 are experiencing unemployment at a rate of 8 percent, according to the Generation Opportunity report, while labor force participation for those in this age bracket is the lowest it's ever been at 71 percent.
Last year was the first time that millennials surpassed baby boomers and Gen-Xers to become the largest voting demographic in the US. It was also the year that the White House made a concerted push to woo millennials, using a host of new digital platforms and granting interviews to a number of youth media outlets, including VICE, to announce new policies and platforms and discuss issues like criminal justice.
Ahead of the SOTU speech on Tuesday night, the White House announced it would be streaming the address both live and on demand on Amazon video, as well as on the White House's YouTube channel. Live updates of the speech will also be plugged in videos, pictures, and even GIF on official Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tumblr accounts in an effort to capture the attention of a young audience.
Presidential candidates for the 2016 election are also taking note of this growing voting bloc as the caucuses and primaries kick off in three weeks. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been promoting the election as a "generational choice," and all three Democratic nomination hopefuls have unveiled varying plans to help eliminate student debt. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders's plan is the most ambitious, with a proposal to make tuition free at public colleges and universities by imposing a "Robin Hood" speculation fee on Wall Street financial transactions.
These efforts come despite reports that millennials continue to be one of America's most politically disengaged groups, with voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds tumbling to an all-time low of just 19.9 percent in the 2014 midterm elections.
Millennial voter disengagement has corresponded with increased financial hardship. The Generation Opportunity report found that a lack of employment opportunity has contributed to the doubling of poverty levels among young people to 16 percent in 2013, compared with the 8 percent experienced by early baby boomers at a similar point in their lives. Some 48 percent of millennials have said they now believe that the American Dream is dead — a view that the new report says has been exacerbated by the high cost of student debt.
Last March, Obama unveiled a Student Bill of Rights along with a raft of new policies aimed at fixing the nation's student loan system. Obama has implemented a series of changes to education over the course of his two terms in office, including increasing Pell grants, introducing tax credits for college, implementing a 2010 Student Loan Forgiveness program, and proposing last January to make two years of community college free for responsible students. While these reforms have won varying levels of support and success, student debt and defaults have continued to rise, surpassing $1.3 trillion in 2015.
The lack of economic opportunity for millennials has led them to delay significant life events, such as getting married or buying a home. Only 36 percent of Americans under 35 now own a home, according to the report — the lowest level on record since home ownership was measured by age. Meanwhile, 26 percent of millennials said that they still lived at home with their parents.
A separate USA Today/Rock the Vote survey this week supported these findings, concluding that the top issue for millennials is the economy — particularly jobs, the minimum wage, and paid leave.
The USA Today survey also suggested that Americans under 35 are more pragmatic than ideological and less fixed in their voting behavior and party affiliationssuggesting that candidates might win an edge over opponents in rival parties when campaigning on these key issues.
The majority of Republican millennials currently support frontrunner Donald Trump, while an overwhelming number of young Democrats support Sanders. The Vermont senator is currently lagging some 20 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton in national polls, but is leading the frontrunner 46 to 35 percent among millennial Democrats and independents.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields