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Obama’s Threat to the Millennial Generation

In his National Journal article, Ron Brownstein, in commenting on President Obama’s State of the Union address, wrote this:

Especially striking was how much of it seemed targeted directly at the massive and diverse millennial generation, born between 1981 and 2002. Obama addressed them repeatedly: by insisting that entitlement spending on the old must face some limits to prevent it from crowding out investment in the young; by framing climate change as a generational challenge; by pledging to provide young people with more training and to confront rising college costs; and by closing with a paean to citizenship that reflected their civic impulses. “They are the leading edge of where the country is headed ideologically as well as demographically,” one senior White House aide said.

Brownstein, a master of political data, points out that Obama won re-election by a comfortable margin despite “historically weak numbers among the older and blue-collar whites who traditionally anchored the conservative end of the Democratic coalition.” The president won because of his strong support from what Brownstein calls “the Democrats’ new national coalition” – including, importantly, the millennials.

I don’t doubt that in 2012 Obama won in part by his appeal to younger votes and that he’ll spend his second term trying to lock them in for future elections. But there is a substantive point that needs to be made regarding Obama’s appeal to millennial voters, and it goes something like this: the Democratic Party, because of it’s dogmatic resistance to serious entitlement reform, poses a tremendous risk to the millennial generation.

Here’s why. The refusal by Democrats to reform entitlement programs in general, and Medicare in particular, means that we will continue to take money from poorer younger people to give it to wealthier older people. Consider: the Pew Research Center reported that over the past quarter-century, households headed by older adults have made dramatic gains in economic well-being relative to those headed by younger adults. In 2009, the average net worth of households headed by adults aged 65 and older was a record 47 times that of households headed by adults under the age of 35. In 1984, the ratio was 10-to-1. What explains this phenomenon? In part it’s because both Social Security and Medicare are open to virtually all American 65 and older, the programs are not means-tested, and their benefits are accruing to a demographic that is growing both in size and in wealth. 

Moreover, if no structural changes to Medicare are made, we will face a debt crisis that will harm the millennial generation above all. They will not have anything like the benefits the older generation has enjoyed. On top of that, our fiscal imbalance is getting worse, not better. The most recent CBO report, for example, predicts the 10-year cumulative deficit is forecast at nearly $7 trillion. This is both generational theft and a factor in our anemic economic growth and job creation, with the younger generation bearing the brunt of it. (The unemployment rate for the millennial generation is over 13 percent, significantly higher than the overall unemployment rate.) As a friend of mine put it, “The millennials are getting by far the worst deal out of Obama and they will suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives; while people over 55 are getting the best deal.”

The challenge the GOP faces, and the opportunity it has, is to explain to younger voters why conservatism is in their best interest; to cut through the Obama cant and demagoguery and obfuscations and explain – in a calm, persuasive, and empirically-grounded manner – why reforming the liberal welfare state is an urgent task, and for the millennial generation more than others.


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