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America's New Radicals Attack a System That Ignores Them
"Enraged young people," The New York Times worries aloud, are kicking off the dust of phony democracy, in which "the job of a citizen was limited to occasional trips to the polling places to vote" while decision-making remains in the claws of a rarified elite of overpaid corporate executives and their corrupt pet politicians.
"From South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street," the paper continues, "these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over. They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box."
The rage of the young is real. It is justified. It is just beginning to play out.
The political class thinks it can ignore the people it purports to represent. They're right--but not forever. A reckoning is at hand. Forty years of elections without politics will cost them.
Americans' pent-up demand for a forum to express their disgust is so vast that they are embracing slapdash movements like Occupy Wall Street, which reverses the traditional tactic of organizing for a demonstration. People are protesting first, then organizing, then coming up with demands. They have no other choice. With no organized Left in the U.S., disaffected people are being forced to build resistance from the ground up.
Who can blame young adults for rejecting the system? The political issue people care most about--jobs and the economy--prompts no real action from the political elite. Even their lip service is half-assed. Liberals know "green jobs" can't replace 14 million lost jobs; conservatives aren't stupid enough to think tax cuts for the rich will help them pay this month's bills.
The politicians' only real action is counterproductive; austerity and bank bailouts that hurt the economy. Is the government evil or incompetent? Does it matter?
Here in the United States, no one should be surprised that young adults are among the nation's angriest and most alienated citizens. No other group has been as systematically ignored by the mainstream political class as the young. What's shocking is that it took so long for them to take to the streets.
Every other age groups get government benefits. The elderly get a prescription drug plan. Even Republicans who want to slash Medicaid and Medicare take pains to promise seniors that their benefits will be grandfathered in. Kids get taken care of too. They get free public education. ObamaCare's first step was to facilitate coverage for children under 18.
Young adults get debt.
The troubles of young adults get no play in Washington. Pundits don't bother to debate issues that concerns people in their 20s and 30s. Recent college graduates, staggering under soaring student loan debt, are getting crushed by 80 percent unemployment--and no one even pretends to care. Young Americans tell pollsters that their top concerns are divorce, which leaves kids impoverished, and global warming. Like jobs, these issues aren't on anyone's agenda.
This pot has been boiling for decades.
In 1996 I published "Revenge of the Latchkey Kids," a manifesto decrying the political system's neglect and exploitation of Generation X, my age cohort, which followed the Baby Boomers.
We were in our 20s and low 30s at the time.
Un- and underemployment, the insanity of a job market that requires kids to take out mortgage-sized loans to attend college just to be considered for a low-paid entry-level gig in a cube farm, the financial and emotional toll of disintegrating families, and our fear that the natural world was being destroyed left many of my peers feeling resentful and left out--like arriving at a party after the last beer was gone.
Today the oldest Gen Xers are turning 50. Life will always be harder for us than it was for the Boomers. If I had to write "Latchkey Kids" for today's recent college grads, it would be bleaker still. Today's kids--demographers call them Gen Y--have it significantly worse than we did.
Like us, today's young adults get no play from the politicians.
The debts of today's Gen Yers are bigger ($26,000 in average student loans, up from $10,000 in 1985). Their incomes are smaller. Their sense of betrayal, having gone all in for Obama, is deeper.
Young adults turned out big for Obama in 2008, but he didn't deliver for them. They noticed: The One's approval rating has plunged from 75 percent among voters ages 18-29 when he took office in January 2009 to 45 percent in September.
Politicians like Obama ignore young adults, especially those with college degrees, at their--and the system's--peril. Now, however, more is at stake than Obama and the Democrats' 2012 election prospects. The entire economic, social and political order faces collapse; young people may choose revolution rather than accept a life of poverty in a state dedicated only to feeding the bank accounts of the superrich.
As Crane Brinton pointed out in his seminal book "The Anatomy of Revolution," an important predictor of revolution is downward mobility among strivers, young adults whose education and ambition would traditionally have led to a brighter future.
In February Martin Wolf theorized in The Financial Timesthat the Arab Spring rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia owed their success to demographics; those countries have more young people than old ones. On the other hand "middle-aged and elderly rig political and economic life for their benefit in the U.K. [he could also have said the U.S.]: hence the way in which policies on housing or education finance are weighted against the young."
Right here and right now, though, the young and the old are on the same side. Though the young are getting screwed the hardest, almost everyone else is getting screwed too. And with 80 percent unemployment, the young have a lot of free time to rise up.