In recent years, it seems like a cottage industry of sorts has formed around bashing the Millennial generation as a bunch of narcissistic, lazy, entitled, coddled, uninformed digital junkies who just can't deal with the real world. Though older generations have always complained about youngsters being in trouble, this animus towards Millennials seems rather unique, especially because, well, Millennials are rather unique.
They are the first generation to grow up in the digital era, and technology has advanced at breakneck speeds during their lifetimes. Older Millennials were just children when the internet was in its infancy, and have grown up with it, from AOL to Myspace to Facebook and the iPhone. It is the first generation that cannot imagine a time when there was no internet or GPS or cell phones to assist you in everyday life. (Certain Seinfeld episodes may even confuse younger Millennials, as they revolve around characters trying to find each other without cell phones or any other digital technologies.) The Millennial generation is also the generation that received those much-lamented participation trophies, and has apparently been so coddled by their parents and teachers and guidance counselors that they simply are "not ready for the real world," which involves rejection and tough breaks.
With all that hate, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the Millennial generation is also the one that faces staggering levels of debt, a bleak job market (even when one does get a college degree, which has become ever more important), and the overall prospect of having a less prosperous future than one’s parents. While today’s 18 to 34 year olds are the best-educated generation in American history -- 22.3 percent with a bachelor’s degree -- they also have lower median earnings (inflation adjusted) than 18 to 34 year olds did in 1980, when just 15.7 percent had a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, becoming the best-educated generation has made Millennials the most indebted generation. Back in 1993, while the oldest Millennials were busy playing Sega Genesis, the average debt per borrower in the graduating class was under $10,000; by 2015, that number had more than tripled to about $35,000 -- earning the class of 2015 the honor of being the most indebted ever.
Even worse, choosing to avoid higher education and all the debt that comes with it makes one’s future prospects that much worse. The unemployment rate for high school graduates aged 25 to 32, for example, is about three times that of those with bachelor degrees. The rate of high school graduates living in poverty is likewise high, at 21.8 percent, compared to 5.8 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree or more.
A lot of the aforementioned Millennial critics tend to be particularly critical of political correctness in higher education. But political correctness is hardly the biggest problem in academia. Over the past few decades, higher education has been almost completely corporatized. As retired Adjunct Professor Joseph A. Domino puts it in The Huffington Post, there has been a “Walmartization” of our colleges and universities.
In plain English, college has gone from being a place where young adults go to learn how to think critically and question things -- including authority -- to a place where young adults go to find careers and monetary success (which explains why “business” is the #1 degree). In the process, universities seem to have shifted their focus towards everything but education in the hopes of attracting students from wealthy backgrounds. Sports arenas, food courts, athletic facilities, and an army of bureaucratic administrators to go along with it. “These amenities are extremely expensive and contribute to the escalating cost of college,” said former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, in a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report. “Moreover, they have very little or anything to do with the education of most young people.”
Meanwhile, salaries for top administrators increased by 39 percent from 2000 to 2010, while full-time professors saw their salaries grow by just 19 percent. And between 1978 and 2014, administrative positions rose by 369 percent, while full-time tenure and tenure-track appointments increased by just 23 percent. In a recent survey done by the Chronicle of Higher Education, it was found that 32 private university presidents earned $1 million or more in 2013, while many professors had unlivable wages. It’s not just our fast-food workers who struggle.
Clearly, administrator priorities are not in providing the best education for America’s young adults, but in climbing the national ranks, creating country club atmospheres, and attracting the wealthiest students, while increasing the cost of tuition in the process.
The corporatization of higher education, which has affected the Millennial generation the most, is a mere symptom of our political economy. Since the era of neoliberalism emerged sometime in the seventies, and exploded with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in the United States, our political economy has had a complete makeover. The neoliberal ideology of economic liberalization -- e.g. privatization, deregulation, free trade, commercial imperialism -- promoted by both Republicans (Reagan, Bush Sr. & Jr.) and Democrats (Clinton, Obama), transformed the United States into what it is today. And with it came the financialization of our economy, a metamorphosis that eventually led to the crash of '07-'08 and the vast economic inequalities that we currently have.
So then, is it any wonder that Millennials -- especially those who are currently in college or recently graduated, who happened to grow up during the biggest economic downturn in nearly a century and witnessed how the greed of a few could hurt an entire society -- are the biggest supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt)? Millennials have inherited an inherently unfair economy and corrupt political system that is a result of nearly four decades of a neoliberal consensus. Or to put it a bit more crudely: Neoliberalism has screwed the Millennial generation. And Sanders is the antithesis of a neoliberal.
The latest poll from the Harvard University Institute of Politics found that Sanders, who trails Clinton overall by about 25 points, actually leads her 41 percent to 35 percent among Democrats aged 18 to 29. It also found that the term “Democratic Socialist” has, if anything, a positive connotation among this age group -- 66 percent said the label makes “no difference,” 24 percent said it would make them “more likely” to support Sanders, and only 9 percent said “less likely.” This seems to back up past polls that have shown Millennials reacting slightly more positively to the word “socialism” than “capitalism.”
Millennials see a society governed by plutocratic pawns who are legally bought by billionaires and corporations. They see a dysfunctional government that can barely keep itself funded, let alone tackle monumental issues of our time, such as climate change -- especially when private industry does everything it possibly can to block necessary legislation. Most who are not fortunate enough to come from a financially well-off family see a future of taking on incredible amounts of debt, just to get an education that will hopefully (but not certainly) provide a job that pays enough to make monthly payments on that debt.
No wonder Democratic Socialism is catching on! The neoliberal experiment has had disastrous effects for the majority of people who are not in the top one percent (or 0.1 percent, for that matter), and the biggest problems we face -- climate change, income and wealth inequality, economic instability, geopolitical turmoil, Millennial debt -- can all be attributed in varying degrees to the philosophy and practice of neoliberalism. Millennials are inheriting all of these nightmarish problems, but surely they do not have to inherit the unsound philosophy that has created or exasperated them. Sanders and his political philosophy provide an alternative that gives Millennials hope in a future that currently looks bleak. And at a time when a fascist is dominating the other party’s primary, hope is in short supply.