Democrats have won votes by alleging that Republican positions amount to a "war on women." Yet politicians and pundits are now saying that a constellation of liberal policies favored by Democrats, on issues ranging from entitlements and healthcare to education and the economy, constitutes a war on youth.
Jeb Bush, for example, told the Washington Examiner on the campaign trail in New Hampshire that leaders need to "make sure the next generation isn't saddled with all of our contingent liabilities on their backs."
Marco Rubio, meanwhile, has talked about the need for generational change. "The world is different than it was five years ago, not to mention 50 or 60 years ago," when programs such as Medicare and Social Security were designed, he said in Iowa.
To understand the two parties' positions, look no further than their standard-bearers.
The Democrats' presidential front-runner is 68. Her main primary opponent is 74. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are both 75, as is third-ranking House Democrat James Clyburn. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is 76. The hot new Democrat on the national scene, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is 66.
Rubio and Ted Cruz are both 24 years younger than Hillary Clinton. That's bigger than the age difference between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996 and almost as much as the generational chasm between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008. Paul Ryan is 45, making him the youngest speaker of the House in 150 years.
And the Democrats' hold on the youth vote is slipping. Obama won 66 percent of those aged 18-29 in 2008 and 60 percent in 2012, while Republicans won their biggest majorities among voters age 65 and up each time. When Obama won his first term, voters under the age of 30 supplied 7 million of his 9 million-vote margin of victory.
"The last two presidential elections have had the widest gaps in voting between young and old of any election since 1972," stated a Pew Research Center analysis published in 2012. Except that 40 years later, George McGovern's coalition prevailed.
"Contrary to the hopes of many Republicans, the millennial generation's support for Barack Obama is not a one-time phenomenon," wrote New Democratic Network fellows Michael Hais and Morley Winograd in an analysis titled "It's Official: Millennials Realigned American Politics in 2008." "As with previous civic generations, they are likely to vote a straight ticket for their preferred party for the rest of their lives."
Yet already there's been noticeable slippage. Obama's margin among the millennials shrank in 2012. An April poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 55 percent of 18-29-year-olds (five points fewer than in 2012) want a Democrat to win the White House in 2016, compared to 40 percent who prefer Republicans.
Some of the generation gap appears attributable to factors other than age. The Harvard poll found that 87 percent of young African-Americans and 68 percent of young Hispanics wanted a Democratic president, while whites in this age group picked a Republican by 53-31 percent, though it's worth noting that younger voter are also less likely to be white. Obama carried young white voters 54-44 percent in 2008 and lost them 44-51 percent in 2012.
This has touched off a debate over whether demography is destiny or Obama pull on youth represents the last gasp of a welfare state constructed for the economic needs of previous generations who are now at least middle-aged. Republicans say Democrats are fighting to prevent reform of a status quo that is storing up big trouble for America's younger generation and others not yet born. If this can be described as a Democratic war on the young, here are some of the battlefronts.
The two biggest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, provide income and healthcare for retirees. Together they accounted for 42 percent of federal spending in fiscal 2014. Neither as currently built can pay indefinitely for their promised benefits.
Young voters have been telling pollsters for more than two decades that they think they're more likely to see UFOs than to receive Social Security benefits. That's since 1994, when only 9 percent of 18-34-year-olds had faith in the retirement system. The youngest millennials were't even born back then. The trust funds for Medicare Hospital Insurance and Social Security's retirement and disability reserves will be exhausted sometime after 2030, according to projections. Social Security's disability insurance could be depleted as soon as the end of next year.
Those trust funds are, in any case, largely an accounting fiction. America's national debt is more than $18.6 trillion ($57,751 per citizen), but Social Security's and Medicare's unfunded liabilities add up to more than three times that. By 2027, the federal government's total unfunded liabilities could reach $127 trillion. As the population ages, the ratio of workers paying into the system declines relative to the retirees collecting benefits.
"The danger to beneficiaries is not coming from those of us trying to improve the programs; it is coming in a few short years when Medicare and Social Security go bankrupt. Or, for those on disability insurance, as soon as next year," House Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., said in July. "By the time a child born today is able to vote, the Social Security trust fund will be insolvent. When today's preschoolers enters college, the Medicare trust fund will be insolvent."
Social Security is also becoming an increasingly bad deal for young workers. They will receive a return on what they paid in payroll taxes far below what they could have gotten from private investments. Unlike their elders, many younger workers will also pay more in payroll taxes than they receive in benefits despite living and working longer, according to the Journal of Retirement.
"I think there is a pervasive sense that Social Security is a super deal that links back to an earlier era that is now past," former Social Security Advisory Board member Sylvester Schieber told Investment News in March. "I suspect that many folks would be dumbfounded if they realized that the net cost of participating in Social Security for an average worker today is roughly five years of their lifetime earnings."
Democrats have been resistant to entitlement reforms that might address some of these issues. So have many Republicans, including 2016 presidential candidates, since their voters skew older and don't have to worry as much about depletion dates or declining returns on investment. But in Ryan, Republicans have chosen a leading reformer for House speaker, and they did not lose older voters when they nominated him for vice president in 2012.
That's not the same as attracting younger voters with entitlement reform, according to Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, author of the book on millennial politics "The Selfie Vote." "We can't win them just by showing them scary numbers on a chart about what is going to happen in 2050," she told the Examiner.
"That's not because they're dumb," Anderson added. She pointed out that storytelling is as important to political arguments as logic and statistics, and a frequent weakness of those coming from a more free-market perspective. She also noted that many younger voters' formative years politically came as voters were turning against George W. Bush and embracing Obama, creating a left-leaning mindset that could last a lifetime.
"The enormity of the [entitlement] problem is hard to comprehend," said David Barnes, policy director of Generation Opportunity, a youth activist organization with a special focus on the fiscal burden on millennials. And while these voters are skeptical that the government can keep its promises, enough of them grew up around the time of the 2007-08 financial crisis that they don't trust the private sector either.
"They certainly are nervous about the stock market," Barnes added. He suggested that more immediate initiatives such as attempts to regulate Uber and Airbnb, parts of the "sharing economy" familiar to millennials, might have a quicker political impact.
One of the most popular features of the Affordable Care Act is a provision allowing young adults to stay on their parents' health insurance plans until they are 26 years old. But the president's signature legislative achievement in many other respects forces young and healthy Americans to subsidize the care of the older and sicker.
One of the least popular features of Obamacare is the individual mandate. Among the reasons for its inclusion in the law was to force "young invincibles" to join insurance exchanges. Healthy younger people are essential if exchange customers are not disproportionately old and sick, which would increase costs and might trigger what experts call a premium "death spiral."
Political organizations launched dueling campaigns designed either to dissuade young people from joining the exchanges or to encourage them to join one. Enroll America, an advocacy group with ties to the president's campaigns, aimed "Get Covered America" at the young. In January, the White House held a brainstorming session with these activists to come up with ways to get younger people on board. The Tea Party group FreedomWorks urged people to burn their "Obamacare draft cards."
The law offers subsidies and its proponents are quick to point out that "young invincibles" is a nice sounding label but isn't true. But during the height of the debate over youth participation in Obamacare, it wasn't hard to find young people like the 25-year-old Los Angeles man who told Bloomberg Business, "For young people learning to take care of ourselves, it's foolish if we have to take care of the older generation, too."
A survey of young adults and recent college graduates age 18-25 conducted for a private health insurance exchange after Obamacare's first open enrollment period found that 62 percent said their monthly premiums were more than they could comfortably afford, and 73 percent said the same about their annual deductibles. Predictably, Obamacare enrollment by younger consumers has lagged. The Obama administration and its allies are making a renewed push this year.
Writing about millennials and Obamacare, Brad Chase of Capitol Media Partners observed, "They know about the law. They know about the mandate to buy insurance or pay a fine. They simply don't care."
Bleak economic prospects even after college
The current generation came of age during and after the great recession, which has diminished job opportunities even after the recovery began. In 2014, the labor force participation rate for young adults was down to its 1972 level after four decades of growth between 1950-90.
Slow economic growth and the gloomy possibility that it is the new normal is attributed by critics to tax increases and an explosion in government regulation during the Obama presidency.
It is taking longer for younger workers to establish themselves financially. According to one estimate, on average it takes until age 30 to reach the middle of the wage distribution. As recently as 1980, the average was age 26.
In November, Generation Opportunity's monthly "Millennial Jobs Report" estimated that 13.1 percent of those age 18-29 remain out of work, compared to the national unemployment rate of about 5 percent. This age group accounts for about 40 percent of the unemployed, according to Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
As of 2012, young men were on average earning only 58 percent of the mean wage. This is down considerably from 85 percent in 1980. The liberal Economic Policy Institute estimates that 7.2 percent of recent college graduates are jobless even as employment and the overall economic picture improves.
This is happening even as people assume greater costs and take on more debt to receive a college education. Americans owe nearly $1.2 trillion in student loans, up from less than a quarter of that ($260 billion) in 2004. Student loans are now eating into what younger workers can put away for retirement. One recent study found that an average student loan debt of $35,000 can cost college graduates $700,000 in retirement savings over 50 years.
A report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggested this debt and financial aid may actually be accelerating tuition inflation. The study concluded that private colleges raise their tuitions 65 cents for every dollar increase in federally subsidized loans and 55 cents for Pell grants for lower-income students.
Yet Democratic candidates have a ready answer for rising tuition coists and galloping student loan debt: more loans, more subsidies and even free college. Bernie Sanders, the main Democratic alternative to Hillary Clinton, is drawing big, young crowds on the campaign trail. While his idealism is a major source of this appeal, so is his advocacy of tuition-free public universities. A tab on the issues page of his presidential campaign website proclaims, "It's time to make college tuition free and debt free."
It's a non-solution that would drive up public debt while driving up tuition costs too, critics say.
Today's Democrats fight for policies that make it more expensive for businesses to hire young workers while enticing the young into greater student loan debt. This will have huge costs for millennials.
Economic problems have increased political pressure on governments at all levels to mandate that businesses pay workers what is referred to as a "living wage." Despite the lingering effects of the recession, there are active campaigns to raise the minimum wage as high as $15 per hour. Some polls show more than 70 percent of the public supports such proposals.
This is despite an early 2014 estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that raising the federal minimum wage to just $10.10 per hour, as Obama proposed, would cost 500,000 jobs. It is the job prospects of the young that are believed to be damaged most by government-mandated wage hikes, for they tend to price entry-level employees out of the labor market entirely.
One study found that a previous minimum wage hike also increased joblessness among workers under age 25 by 2.8 percentage points. "During the great recession, youth unemployment increased by 11.2 percentage points, so the increase in the minimum wage can account for about 25 percent of that increase," wrote the American Enterprise Institute's Sita Nataraj Slavov and Aspen Gorry.
Few things more directly affect the young than K-12 education. But many public schools do a terrible job of preparing children to enter the workforce. That's why there was such a backlash when the Obama administration moved to phase out the opportunity scholarship program for low-income D.C. school children in 2009, followed by more subtle attempts to shortchange the program subsequently.
While the president sent his own children to the exclusive Sidwell Friends private school, nearly 90 percent of the scholarship recipients would otherwise be stuck in schools that are judged failures under No Child Left Behind. Ninety-seven percent are black or Hispanic.
The administration's hostility to opportunity scholarships, despite being regarded as more sympathetic education reforms opposed by teachers unions than typical Democrats, illustrates the stranglehold groups like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have over the party. (The NEA has already endorsed Clinton for president.)
These organizations have blocked even modest forms of school choice like charter schools. Serving the interests of the teachers unions may not harm people who can afford to send their children to private school or who live in communities with good public schools. But that's not the reality for millions of Americans.
Teachers unions are a potent source of campaign contributions, giving some $19.2 million in 2012 alone. More than 90 percent of their donations go to Democratic candidates who reward them by trying to thwart competition for failing schools even as they lavish money on bureaucracies like the federal Department of Education.
The federal war on drugs was until recently a matter of bipartisan consensus. That consensus is showing signs of breaking apart. Some polling suggests that among younger voters, that consensus is now forming in the opposite direction.
Pew found that over 70 percent of millennials support marijuana legalization. This includes more than 60 percent who identify as Republicans, though the numbers are higher among Democrats.
Colorado law enforcement activists expressed concern over the summer that legalization in their state has increased children's exposure to marijuana while producing less tax revenue than originally promised. Yet legalization ballot initiatives are looked upon with favor by Democratic donors seeking to boost young voter turnout. The most recent initiative in Ohio failed.
Every war has casualties, and abortion represents the most direct threat to the young. The practice literally kills those who would otherwise become members of the next generation. Unlike most of the other problems here, abortion has been trending downward. In 2011, the abortion rate hit its lowest level since 1973, the year the Supreme Court cast aside the laws of all 50 states and legalized abortion nationwide.
Yet abortion remains common, and the United States' legal regime is more permissive than most other developed countries'. An estimated 1.06 million abortions were performed in 2011, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, down from 1.21 million in 2008 and a high of 1.6 million in the early 1990s. The teen abortion rate has dropped by more than two-thirds since 1988. But 1 million abortions per year remains the norm.
There are conflicting reports on how younger Americans view abortion. Some polling suggests abortion is an exception to the general social liberalism of millennials, who are more secular and strongly in favor of same-sex marriage compared to older cohorts.
Where in the 1990s, younger Americans were generally most likely to believe in an unlimited right to abortion, some surveys have found this age group most likely to believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.
A recent Marist College poll found 64 percent of young Americans think the abortion rate is "higher than it should be," 59 percent believe it is "morally wrong" and 58 percent say it "does more harm than good." "In a sense," writes Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, "every American born after 1973 is a survivor of Roe."
Yet a 2012 Pew poll found that 64 percent of people under 30 said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 58 percent among the over 30s. The same survey found younger people likely to support activist government and expanding Obamacare.
Nevertheless, abortion, a key component of Democratic narratives about the war on women, could still be considered the most lethal component of a war on the young.
On each of these fronts, Democrats are working to protect or expand the policies that arguably hurt young people most. They are campaigning on increasing the promises made by entitlement programs rather than reforming them to help them keep current promises. They want to preserve Obamacare, boost the minimum wage and protect unfettered access to abortion. Democrats also have their own strategies for how to turn out the youth vote: marijuana legalization ballot initiatives, more subsidies for college education, advocacy for gay marriage and environmental policies.
Even if there is a logical connection between how many liberal policies hurt young people most, the political question remains: Would it help Republicans to frame Democratic policies as amounting to a war on youth? GOP strategist Liz Mair expressed skepticism. She says a candidate who already has appeal to younger voters, like Obama in 2008 or Rand Paul running under better political circumstances, could potentially make this case. But 2008 aside, younger voters don't typically decide elections.
"It's a tricky chicken-and-egg situation: Would more younger voters vote if they felt someone was really running to represent their interests?" she said. "Maybe. But unless they're going to vote, why should anyone run to represent their interests?"
"I'm guessing the better campaign would be one appealing to the kids' parents," Mair added. "I'm a parent, and about the only thing that would get me to vote (allegedly) against my own direct financial interests would be if they conflict with my kid's — I already part with a lot of nice things like cash, free time, etc., etc., in order to give him a better life. Ask me to get on board with premium support instead of standard Medicare to give him a better future, even though the Democrats are saying that's like me nailing my own coffin shut? Sure, I'll do it."