How exactly did we become losers? By many measures, we aren’t succeeding in the ways our predecessors did. If you’re a college graduate, you likely have a lot of debt and a degree that’s not helping you get a job. You’re under-utilized in the economy, and there’s a good chance you have already lived, or still are living, at home. Instead of starting families, we’re in limbo, working the sort of crummy, low-paying jobs that we worked in high school and to pay for college, but that we didn’t expect to have to work once we had a degree. We’re in economic straits; unhappy, and often cynical.
The obvious answer is the Great Recession, since December of 2007. To trace the causes of this economic collapse would take a volume. Certain laws, such as Glass-Steagall separating banks from securities, were repealed along with other regulations put in place after the Great Depression of the 30s. When these were removed, in a process from Regan to Clinton to Bush, the same risky patterns that had led to the Great Depression began again. The critical components of the fallout were that pensions disappeared and houses were being foreclosed on – both of which struck the middle class. This, in turn, was compounded by the fact that middle class families are historically highly likely to send their children to college. Since the 1980s, tuition has far outpaced the middle class wage (which has diminished relative to purchasing power over the same period). So our generation took out loans to pay for it, which previously wasn’t too bad an option, if you could get a well-paying job after college and pay them off in maybe ten years.
Since 2007 things have gotten better. Still the United States has roughly 9% unemployment and 15% of its population is living under the poverty line. The Occupy movement was to be expected, since a consistent factor in determining a country’s overall happiness is its income discrepancy. The less of a discrepancy, the happier the population. When a large portion of the people being hurt by the recession are youth, of course they’re going to be fed up with the status quo. Approximately 17% of the unemployed are under the age of 30. That’s roughly 3,400,000 people, or the population of Wyoming, Montana, Vermont and New Hampshire combined. These numbers do not include the under-employed who’ve settled for part-time work, or have simply given up hope looking; for youth currently listed as 32% - one in three. The actual un- and underemployed numbers are estimated to be higher than the reported.
Who is going to fix this mess? Historically, based on the Great Depression, it’s best to employ Keynesian economics in the form of government intervention. Reputable economists, such as the Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, are very consistent in saying the initial government bailout was the right idea, but simply not big enough. When free market forces go awry and the bust gets too big to comfortably handle (like 3.4 million unemployed youth) the government steps in and regulates to ensure safety for its citizens. This has been true for boom-bust cycles going back to the 1600s. So we need to turn to government, right?
In John W. Dean’s Broken Government he addresses the discouraging trend of voter apathy and reminds us “Over the years –actually, over the decades– the figures have not changed significantly, so the data from 2004 are as good as any and probably not far from what they have been since the embarrassing records were first kept in the 1930s.” This apathy and ignorance of voters is disheartening, certainly. About 60% of Americans in the Bush years thought there was a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, to take a recent depressing example. As of 2010 one in five said Obama was a secret Muslim. Dean cites where Americans stood in the 2004 election for voter turnout:
“How many Americans do vote? The answer is surprisingly few. Among the 172 nations of the world for which records are maintained, the 2004 nationwide voter turnout of 48.3 percent of eligible voters…ranks the United States 139 among the world’s democracies, slightly ahead of Botswana (46.5 percent) and Zambia (40.5 percent). Most developed democracies have far greater turnout, like Germany (80.6 percent), Sweden (83.6 percent), France (84 percent) and Italy (92.5 percent).”
The 2008 election had the largest turnout since the 1960s, with between 62-3% of eligible voters going to the polls for the Presidential election. That’s still less than the most recent elections in the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan or even Togo. The point being – we are in part losers of our own making. Luckily, we can be the solution to our own problem.