President Barack Obama is offering a new commitment to American millennials, but with youth unemployment and student debt levels still oppressively high, the country's largest generation has withdrawn some of its once-fervent support for him.
"A lot of you entered into the workforce during the worst financial crisis and then the worst recession since the Great Depression,” Obama told a forum at Cross Campus, a business and innovation center in Santa Monica, Calif. on Thursday. “A lot of cynics have said, ‘Well, that makes many of you part of a lost generation.’ But I don’t buy that, because when I travel around the country, I see the kind of energy and hope and determination that so many of you are displaying here.”
The president praised the efforts of millennials to overcome a recovering economy and assured them of his administration’s support in issues that affect them most — wage equality, unemployment, health care, education and debt.
Echoing a new report released by his Council of Economic Advisers, Obama noted that millennials – those born between 1980 and the mid-2000s – are not only the largest age group in the US today, but also the most diverse, educated and tech-savvy in history. That puts them at the forefront of American economic growth, he said.
At the forum, Obama said that the unemployment rate has dropped to below 6 percent for the first time in six years. But the rate among adults between the ages of 18 and 34 is more than 45 percent higher than that of the overall population, and nearly 175 percent higher for African Americans of that age, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the youth advocacy group Young Invincibles. These numbers reflect a larger trend of soaring youth unemployment around the world, in developed and developing economies alike, explored in the GlobalPost Special Report "Generation TBD."
“There is a generational injustice,” said Corie Whalen Stephens, national spokeswoman for Generation Opportunity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan millennial advocacy group based in Washington, DC. “Young people are feeling the effects of these policies.”
Obama only indirectly acknowledged some of those problems in Santa Monica, saying, “There are challenges and downsides as well as opportunities.”
He noted, for instance, the lack of a safety net – such as the health benefits and pension that are tied to traditional jobs – for even the most enterprising millennials.
The forum at Cross Campus is one of several White House efforts to engage the youth in the lead-up to the November midterm elections. It also comes at a time when public trust in the president’s economic leadership is facing an all-time low: A CNBC survey released Tuesday found only 24 percent of Americans are “extremely or quite confident” in Obama’s economic goals and policies, and 44 percent of the public have no confidence at all.
“We’re not surprised,” said Stephens. “We’ve talked to a lot of young people, and many of them feel a lot of [Obama’s] promises have kind of gone unfulfilled.”
The conservative political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, funded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, released an ad this week blaming "big government" for the plight of 13 million young Americans unable to find a job and launching a "Defend Their Dream" campaign.
Obama took the chance to renew his call to raise the minimum wage, a move that Republicans in Congress have stalled. He ended the discussion by urging his audience to “help mobilize the passion and energy that you’re showing in the private sector and direct that to the public sector.”
Harvard University pollster John Della Volpe and his team found earlier this year that what had been called the "Obama generation" has not dived into public service at the high rates found under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
“Because as clunky and as frustrating as government and politics can sometimes be … it is still vital,” Obama said. “It still makes a huge difference.”
Stephens agrees that the challenges facing millennials today are a result of policies by both parties. But the youth, she said, should not be left to suffer the consequences of bureaucratic inefficiencies.
“At this point, we’d just like to see them not make it worse,” she said of her hopes after the next election. “We’re just trying to … stem the bleeding.”
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