America is facing some tough challenges right now and the outcome of the 2012 presidential elections could well determine if the U.S. economy is repositioned on the path toward growth and more equitable prosperity, or will continue its descent toward “Other World” status. The implications of further decline for a new generation are enormous. Elections are also about harnessing human potential, an idea embodied in those we elect to lead us. Should the conservatives capture the White House and strengthen their grip on the Congress, the hopes, dreams, and the potential of 80 million 18 to 34-year-olds (Millennials) in large measure could be lost to this economy or, if we are fortunate, their fulfillment would provide the bridge into the future. This is just a consequence of the choice American voters make on Election Day next November. It is, therefore, the potential of this generation we should value as a national treasure. President Clinton is on the mark when he says this generation is representative of the “millions of good people who are looking for the chance to be part of America's recovery, and their own.”
Who is this generation whose potential a conservative administration might jeopardize? According to the December 2011 issue of SUCCESS Magazine, this generation “is now larger than the baby boom generation, three times the size of Generation X and more than one-fourth of the U.S. population.” Their “annual direct spending power is estimated to be $200 billion, with indirect spending power at $500. Moreover, “discretionary spending is estimated to increase another 10 percent from $62.7 billion in 2009 to $69 billion this year among college consumers.” We cannot ignore these numbers.
Millennials, therefore, are well-educated, politically savvy, and represent a diverse demographic. Moreover, they are visible and they are weary of Washington polemics and our current leadership that insists on mortgaging their futures with uncertainty, a more polarized society, narrowly focused economic and social policies, and debt. And, they are certainly aware of their potential as a potent force in society. “Never tie yourself to your history. Tie yourself to your potential” says motivational speaker and noted author Dr. Stephen Covey. Few would argue the sagacity of Covey's advice, especially young people alive today, but that advice has to be taken in the context of the times it is proffered: the worst economy since the Great Depression. Living up to one's potential, the younger generation asserts, and presupposes the existence of opportunity and, an economic and social climate that rewards preparation, creativity, risk taking, self-discipline, and persistence. They get it!
Every post WWll generation was weaned on some variation of Dr. Covey's perennially valid advice, including those whose partisan politics now cripple our economy. However, the missing ingredient today is an economy dynamic enough to absorb the millions of unemployed and a successor generation — many of which are already victims of a dearth of opportunity. This condition is the damnable legacy the Occupy Wall Street Movement rails against.
So here is the deal: If you are one of more than 80 million 18 to 34-year-olds, your generation will bear a major responsibility for shaping the future that values and will embrace your potential — perhaps more so than any post-War ll generation. Why? Income mobility enabled prior generations to move from one class to another thus creating a window of opportunity for their children. Not so today. What you have is a 30-year legacy of structural income inequality, a hollow economy, and an economic landscape practically bereft of opportunities for upward mobility. A recent study from the Boston Federal Reserve documents a reduction in income mobility in recent years.
For the tens of millions of 18 to 34-year-olds, a potent weapon against the anti-government, anti-growth crowd remains the election process. Granted, they have legitimate grievances with the current Administration and a “do-nothing-Congress” but, if tying themselves to their potential remains the lifeline to success and a future, the path ahead will lead through the ballot box. For some of them, an interim step involves support of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Apathy or disenchantment with the President, or politics, is the worse possible choice, as some polls reflect, because the stakes are grave: economic oblivion, continuing income inequality, and a soft economy.
All of the current Republican presidential candidates are committed to more austerity measures for the 99 percent, increased taxes for the middle class and more corporate control over our national economy — rule by oligarchy. A commitment to income mobility should be a litmus test for any candidate seeking the millennial vote. Republicans, for example, want to “cut Pell grants and put college out of reach for many Americans in order to provide even more tax cuts for big corporations and the wealthy.”
Electing a President is half of the solution; electing more progressive thinkers to the Congress is the other half. This, however, is just the beginning. If the millennials are serious about wanting fundamental change, less income inequality, and greater opportunity, they will have to step up their game; they will have to stand and fight as middle-class voters did in Arizona, Wisconsin, Ohio, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Maine as persuasive examples of successes that can be achieved when a collective will is put to the test. Moreover, their presence has to be a permanent reminder that they will demand accountability. To paraphrase Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 15 “…the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without restraint.” Those we elect will endanger public liberty and constrain opportunity if allowed. Remember, we the people, are their enablers.
Bitter experience shows that elected officials of both major parties at the state and national levels are easily corrupted by Washington and corporate cultures and constituents' concerns are quickly subordinated to the entreaties of lobbyists and their unlimited campaign funds. There is a strong correlation between legislation that strengthens the middle class and an economic climate in which a new generation feels hopeful about its future. An ongoing responsibility for the 18 to 34-year-olds will be to ensure that those they elect will not continue to harm the economic prospects of average Americans. The millennials will inherit “the earth” and among their demands are that the current stewards of America's patrimony create hospitable ground to anchor themselves, and that they have reliable political partners prepared to practice the politics of inclusion.
If there is a charge for this emerging generation then, it is to force their elected officials to wean the country away from its dysfunctional politics and get us back into the business of America's future. Restoring an economy with more income equality is the perfect place to start because it revives faith in the idea that everyone can tie themselves to their potential and have a reasonable chance to succeed.