One year ago today President Obama signed the Kennedy Serve America Act fulfilling one of his most important campaign promises to the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003). The legislation represented the biggest expansion of national service since FDR's Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Among other provisions, the bill
Established programs to involve middle and high school students in community service, including its innovative Summer of Service programs;
Expanded AmeriCorps openings over 8 years, allowing for up to 250,000 AmeriCorps volunteers by fiscal year 2017;
Expanded the National Civilian Community Corps' mission to include projects on energy conservation, environmental stewardship or conservation, infrastructure improvement, urban and rural development, or disaster preparedness needs; and
Established new volunteer Corps to engage Millennial's enthusiasm for such efforts including the Education Corps to improve schools, the Healthy Futures Corps to serve unmet health needs within communities, the Clean Energy Corps to work on energy projects, the Opportunity Corps to work with the economically disadvantaged, and the Veterans Corps to work with veterans and their families.
In return for participating in these service initiatives, the legislation raised the value of the full-time national service educational award that goes to participants in the Corporation for National Community Service's programs to the maximum amount of a Federal Pell Grant. This will enable those who volunteer, to return to school after serving their country, just as members of the GI generation did after WWII.
One effort that deserves special mention is the recently concluded "Beyond the Welcome Home" Veteran's Summit hosted by one of the leading Millennial service organizations, Mobilize.org, in Carson, California. More than five dozen veterans of the Iraqi or Afghanistan wars, representing Millennial veterans from all branches of the armed services gathered for three days to identify the major problems facing returning veterans and develop service solutions to address their issues. Joined by civilian Millennials and interested non-profits, the group used the latest in interactive technologies to prioritize the issues they wanted to address.
The four most important issues facing returning veterans that the group identified did not sound very different than those facing veterans returning from earlier wars:
1. Reintegrating veterans into civilian life so they can productively interact with civilians and society again.
2. A lack of knowledge about programs and benefits post-separation for the armed forces that could help veterans with their return to civilian life.
3. Suicide prevention to deal with feelings of lack of self-worth post-deployment and post-military that many veterans experience.
4. Delays in receiving the health care and other benefits that they are entitled to due to poor communication between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
But the solutions that received the most support from the participants had a distinctly Millennial flavor. Many emphasized the group solidarity that Millennials feel so intensely. As one participant put it, "The way to deal with these issues is with veterans taking care of each other, just as we did in Iraq." Or as another participant said, "We need to do things ourselves, not have DoD do it. We always do better ourselves."
Millennial's determination to overhaul the institutions their elders built or, failing that, to start new ones was also evident in the suggestions offered at the conference. "We should use the established Veteran Service Organizations, but if they don't work, we should create new ones." One popular way to start new institutions was to create a "Facebook for Vets" site that could link all the sites Millennial vets are using into a single place to get all the information they need.
Nor were the participants daunted by the challenge of taking on two of the federal government's biggest bureaucracies-DoD and the VA-through their generation's penchant for political engagement. Two comments capture the larger sentiment of the group. "We need to become active and aware of political issues that involve veterans and encourage our fellow Millennials to vote for legislators who support veterans' issues." "By sharing information and becoming advocates we can get DoD and VA to respond."
Of the approximately 2 million service men and women who have served our country so far in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 60%, almost 1.26 million, are members of the Millennial Generation, so these sentiments are certain to find their way into this year's political campaigns. Unlike the shunned and often reviled veterans of the Vietnam War, Millennials are returning to a society that respects their service. According to NDN's latest survey on America's 21st Century electorate, 64% of Millennials, as well as 78% of older generations, have a positive view of the nation's military. But more than one in five veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 can't find work when they return home.
The country's appreciation needs to be translated into programs for veterans that are worthy of the honor this generation has brought to our country. Three years ago, Mobilize.org established its Democracy 2.0 declaration which states that it is time "to act. . . to upgrade America's unfinished project of democracy." The organization has taken an important step along that path by hosting the summit and providing $25,000 to support the best ideas that flowed from the conference. But as the nation observes National Volunteer Week, each of us should take a moment to commit to doing whatever is needed to honor the most important volunteers this country has-the members of the United States Armed Forces.
One way to do so would be to connect to any of the groups that earned support from Mobilize.org for the work they were doing with Millennial veterans at the Summit, or to some of the other groups dedicated to helping America's next great generation contribute as much in their civilian life as they have already done in the military. This list is a great place to start honoring our Millennial veteran's service:
Millennials (young Americans born 1982-2003) rate the quality of education and the cost of college near the top of the list of issues about which they are most concerned, just behind jobs and the economy. This week, President Barack Obama responded to those concerns with the release of his plan to fix the No Child Left Behind Law and focus the federal government's efforts even more on ensuring school's deliver the results and outcomes that Millennials and their parents expect from America's institutions. The announcement capped a remarkable series of events that saw Democrats joining parents and educators across the country in taking important steps to address those educational needs, providing Millennials new hope that their investments in politics and civic engagement will finally pay off.
NDN's newest survey research indicates that Millennials, unlike all other generations, rate education generally, and the cost of a college education specifically, as two of the top four critical problems they believe government must address and fix. Clearly, Millennials, like older generations, see a need to improve public education in America. And, in fact, Millennials perceive this need from a very personal perspective. While the Millennial Generation is slightly more positive about the overall quality of education in the United States (41% positive/50% negative) than older generations (32%/62%), they give significantly lower grades to the education they have personally received than older generations. Seventy percent of Millennials believe that the poor quality of public education stems from a lack of money and the way schools are managed and organized. Unlike the majority of older generations, Millennials are about evenly split on whether or not unions and work rules are a major problem in our system of public education. In response to attitudes like these, an increasing number of urban school districts are beginning to abandon the strategy of incremental reform and adopting more radical and dramatic changes to address the concerns of Millennials and their parents.
In Rhode Island, the Central Falls school board fired all the teachers, the principle and the administrators in an underperforming high school where half the 800 students were failing every subject and only seven percent were proficient in math. Unable to reach agreement with the teachers on how to pay for the changes needed to break this cycle of mediocrity, the board invoked the "turnaround option" sanctioned by the Obama administration's school reform initiative, which allows school boards to start over at failing schools with a brand new set of teachers and administrators. Given the President's unwavering support for systemic reform of schools that fail to educate children embodied in his Race to the Top initiative, the White House's support of the school board's actions should not have come as a surprise to those still trying to protect the status quo.
In Kansas City, Missouri the school board, that previously had stood in the vanguard of those believing primarily in racial integration and increased per pupil spending as the solution to the problems of education in urban environments, decided to try a completely different approach. Less than third of Kansas City elementary school students are now reading at or above grade level and no more than a quarter of most of their schools' students have achieved the levels of proficiency required for the skills they will need in life. Faced with these results, and the prospect of running out of money by next year, the board voted to close about half of the district's schools in order to "dramatically enhance education for each of our students by combining our very best teachers and very best resources in fewer schools," as Kansas City's School Superintendent put it.
But perhaps the most dramatic news of the week came from Detroit where a coalition of nonprofit organizations, Excellent Schools Detroit, announced its plan to replace Detroit's failing public schools with 70 new ones and make a $200-million investment over the next ten years in order to achieve its goal of graduating 90% of Detroit kids from high school by 2020 and having 90% of graduates go on to college. Currently, about 58% of students in Detroit's school system and 78% of those enrolled in charter schools in the city graduate from high school, while fewer than 25% enroll in college.
The plan includes a push for mayoral control of Detroit Public Schools, but more importantly the establishment of an independent commission to grade every school in the city, including charters, every year against a uniform set of standards and outcomes focused on achieving educational excellence. The new Standards and Accountability Commission will establish a competitive public education marketplace complete with report cards grading each school's progress against an agreed upon set of standards that will enable parents to become smart shoppers for their child's education. The commission will also suggest closures in order to weed out failing schools, half of which, under the plan, would be closed or replaced with schools under new management by 2015. Like the Kansas City solution, the plan does not rely on increased funding from the state but rather the commitment of Detroiters to the future of their children. The idea was greeted with cheers from everyone except the members of the current school board.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S. Senate, a flurry of phone calls and emails from Millennials across the nation, convinced a majority of Democratic Senators to join in an effort to rescue Pell grants for students attending college from dramatic cuts that would have reduced payments by 60% for eight million students and eliminated the money altogether for another half a million. The House had already passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would reform the student loan program by eliminating the current subsidies to private lenders who make student loans guaranteed by the federal government and invest the money saved in increasing the size and availability of Pell Grants. But six Democratic Senators, who should know better, had argued that the nation couldn't afford to continue to make these investments in its future and should instead continue to underwrite the bank's profits, even as students on campuses across the nation demonstrated to protest increases in tuition at cash strapped state universities.
Since Republicans were united in defending the interests of banks over Millennials, the only way to enact President Obama's student aid reform proposal was to include the concept in the budget reconciliation package, central to efforts to finally pass health care reform, which only requires a simple majority in the Senate for passage. After hearing from their House colleagues on the political benefits and policy importance of the concept, even budget hawks like North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad, chairman of the Budget Committee, agreed to find a way to bundle the two items by adjusting the education portion to account for a revised Congressional Budget Office cost analysis. The principle driver of the increased costs of the program is the popularity of this type of college financial aid among Millennials struggling to stay out of debt and still get the education they need to get a good paying job. By combining ways to reduce the cost of college with a major expansion of health care in the reconciliation package, Democrats have taken a major step forward in solidifying the support of all elements of the Democratic Party's 21st Century majority coalition-from young voters to minorities.
This new coalition presents the best opportunity for Democrats to solidify a dominant majority coalition since FDR and the New Deal. But key members of the coalition, especially Millennials, are currently not convinced that voting in 2010 will make much of a difference, given the results they have seen from Congress in the first year of the Obama administration in the election of which they played such a significant role. But these recent events suggest the country is finally beginning to listen to the voice of this new generation and address its concerns. As educators and parents at the grass roots of this revolution begin to have an impact in cities across the nation, the best thing that Democrats in Congress could do before this week is out is pass both health care and student aid reform as part of their budget reconciliation process. Doing so would finally begin to align the nation's budgetary priorities with its future and bring hope for Millennials that changes they can believe in will continue to flow from their investment in the country's political process.
More than twice as many 18-29 year olds voted for President Barack Obama as for John McCain in 2008, and one year later the party preferences of college students remain similarly lopsided in favor of the Democratic Party and its political point of view.
The most recent data from communication research company Frank N. Magid Associates' show an equal percentage of students, 18 and older, call themselves liberals or progressives (31%) as describe their political philosophy as moderate (30%). By contrast, only 20% describe themselves as conservative, while another 20% haven't learned enough in college yet to say just what their ideological orientation is. Survey research data from 2008 and 2009 actually showed self-described moderates as the most common philosophical designation by Millennials, born between 1982 and 2003, with liberalism in second place. But those studies included Millennials who were not on campus, which suggests either that college students are a more liberal bunch than non-students by nature or there has been further movement toward liberalism among Millennials during the first year of Obama's presidency.
Almost all students on campus today are members of the Millennial Generation and bring that generation's commitment to civic engagement and consensus decision making to the political process. Unlike many members of Generation X or Baby Boomers who preceded them, a majority of Millennials believes in using government to help address societal problems and economic inequality. These philosophic touchstones form the basis of their political identification and belief system.
Millennials were inclined to be Democrats before Obama ran for presidency and both his campaign and his presidency have solidified that tendency. Beginning in 2006 as Millennials made their presence known among 18-29 year old voters, partisan identification among this age group moved from a roughly 50/50 split to a clear preference for the Democratic Party. In 2008, Millennials voted more than 2:1 for Obama over McCain (66% vs. 32%) and by roughly the same percentage (63% vs. 34%) for Democratic congressional candidates. Magid's 2010 data shows this same level of Democratic identification persisting among Millennials who are attending college. Twice as many college students call themselves Democrats as Republicans (47% vs. 24%). Only 15% are independents, with a similar percentage unwilling to identify with any of those three choices.
These numbers suggest the Young Republicans have a lot of work to do just to break even, while Young Democrats should have a rockin' good time of it on college campuses across America.
America has always recognized the link between education and economic success--from the mandate for free public education in the Northwest Ordinance through Lincoln's support for the Morrill Land Grant College Act to the GI Bill of Rights legislation after World War II. In each of these previous civic eras, governments at all levels have invested heavily in education based on the belief that these expenditures would return much more in the future earnings capacity of its citizenry than the short term costs incurred. Now new research indicates the best way to bring good jobs and rising wages to our newest civic generation, Millennials, is by breaking down the barriers to post-secondary educational success.
According to a recent study by Louis Jacobson and Christine Mokher, "Pathways to Boosting the Earnings of Low Income Students by Increasing their Educational Attainment," the key to future earnings potential is COMPLETION of whatever course of study is undertaken. "Course for course the returns to community colleges and four year college attendance are comparable. However students who complete a community college credential tend to have higher earnings than four-year college students who do not graduate." Those who earned an associate degree at a community college earned 27% more than those who failed to get a degree of any kind and those with a certificate, even if for only one year of post high school education, still earned on average 8% more a year than those who failed to complete their higher education studies.
The two major obstacles to postsecondary success identified in the study were the need to finance education and living expenses by working while attending school and the lack of adequate preparation in academic subjects such as math and science while in high school. Given the documented importance of completing a post-secondary field of study, the report's identification of these two principal barriers to students finishing what they start gives policy makers a clear path to improve both educational attainment and the acquisition of good jobs with decent salaries and benefits for Millennials.
Financing Post-secondary Education
The Jacobson and Mokher study found that in 2007-2008 just about every one of the lowest income students attending community colleges was in debt, with an average of $7,147 in unmet expenses after taking into account all the grants or scholarships they received. Student per class tuition rates are even higher at private one or two year "career colleges," which enroll only about 10% of the number of students that attend government subsidized community colleges. As a result, three-fourths of associate degree or certificate seekers end up working to help cover their educational and living expenses. The burden of needing to work is a major reason why only 26% of community college students get a degree or certificate within three years of starting their studies and only 38% get their degree within six years.
Meanwhile federal support for higher education has failed to keep up with rising costs so that more and more students find themselves financing their education with student loans of one type or another. In Indiana, for instance, 62 percent of those who do manage to graduate carry student loan debt averaging $23,264 per student. The loan burden in that state is even higher for graduates of for-profit colleges who leave school with an average debt burden of $32,650.
In addition to the steps Democrats have already taken to increase the maximum amount available from Pell Grants and the value of tax deductions for parents able to afford to pay their child's tuition, Congress should follow the President's lead in addressing this debilitating burden on students who are required to finance their education while attending school. One important step would be to increase support for community colleges along the lines advocated by NDN. Congress should also eliminate the current subsidy to banks that provide risk free private student loans guaranteed by the government and redirect the money saved to expanding the federal loan program that allows students to borrow directly, at lower costs, from the government. This Obama Administration initiative was part of the student loan reform bill the House passed last year, but it appears to be stymied in the Senate with sponsors hard to come by. Finally, whatever entity is eventually charged with protecting consumers from deceptive marketing of loans and other credit instruments as part of reforming our nation's financial regulatory structure, should also be given oversight of the student loan market and the power to set strong rules for fairer private student loan marketing and terms.
Fixing our nation's high schools
Among the brightest success stories of the Obama Administration are its educational reform policies under the leadership of Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan. Its Race to the Top grant program designed to reward performance is already having transformative impact on educational policy in many states even as the program's first grants are awarded. Focused on providing more money to schools that are turning out students able and willing to learn, this program should be expanded in line with the administration's budget requests and supported by Democrats at all levels of government, from school districts to state legislatures. Now its time to bring the Gen X parents of Millennial students into the game as well and get them engaged in making sure their kids get the education they will need to succeed when they graduate from high school.
Already successful charter schools, such as UPrep in Detroit, have demonstrated that any child of any background can graduate from high school and get accepted into a post-secondary educational experience if provided with the right learning environment, one that sets expectations of success right from the start. Bringing parents into the process of establishing such learning environments, as California's recent "parent trigger" legislation does, represents the cutting edge of educational reform in this Millennial Era.
As Neil Howe, co-author of Generations, wrote in the most recent edition of School Administrator magazine, "when these Gen-X "security moms" and "committed dads" are fully roused, they can be even more attached, protective and interventionist than Boomer [parents] ever were. . .They will juggle schedules to monitor their kids' activities in person. . . [and] will quickly switch their kids into - or take them out of - any situation according to their assessment of their youngsters' interests." Congress could take a big step toward improving America's high schools by empowering these Gen-X "stealth-fighter parents" to take over failing schools as part of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Howe writes that "Gen Xers believe their children's education should be a fair and open transaction with complete and accurate information and unconstrained consumer choice" and Congress should use its funding leverage to give them just what they are looking for.
Winning the hearts and minds of both Millennials and their parents is an achievable political goal for Democrats. Furthermore, as the latest research reveals, knocking down the barriers to obtaining a certificate or degree after high school is the key to economic success for both students and the country, making the idea good public policy as well as good politics. Making higher education more affordable and fixing our nation's high schools should be at the top of Democrats economic policy priorities now and throughout the decade ahead.
We appreciate Pete Peterson’s attention to our work, but in responding to his complaint that we are denigrating Generation X and underrating its civic participation, we should begin at the beginning, define our terms, and give credit where credit is due. In writing our book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, we borrowed heavily from the thinking of and acknowledged our intellectual debt to Neil Howe and the late William Strauss, the founders of generational theory. In their seminal books, Generations (1992) and The Fourth Turning (1997), Strauss and Howe described the four generational archetypes – Idealist, Reactive, Civic, and Adaptive – that have cycled throughout Anglo-American history. Stemming from the way each generation was reared by its parents, each generational type develops a characteristic set of attitudes and behaviors that is broadly similar regardless of where in American history it appears.
It is the attitudes and behaviors of these archetypes, not our biases or disdain for Generation X, that underpin our comments. Those same archetypical attitudes and behaviors also shape the statistics that Peterson cites both selectively and somewhat out of context in his New Geography posting.
One of Peterson’s contentions is that members of Generation X currently participate in voluntary or non-profit activities to at least the same extent as Millennials do. He cites a survey conducted by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) to prove his point. It is clear, however, that the NCOC itself places great hope in the Millennial Generation, entitling a section in its reports, “The Emerging Generation: Opportunities with the Millennials” and stating that “In the 2009 Civic Health Index, Millennials emerge as the ‘top’ group for volunteers.”
While the NCOC statistics do indicate that Millennials lead the way in civic engagement, to be fair the overall differences between the X and Millennial Generations are not large. What most distinguishes Millennials from other generations is the type of community activities in which they are involved. Not surprisingly, given the lower incomes normally associated with entry level jobs and the fact that the Great Recession has hit them to a far greater extent than other generations, Millennials are more likely than older generations to volunteer rather than make financial donations. While a plurality of those in all generations say they both volunteer and donate financially, Millennials are substantially more likely to engage solely as volunteers. Among those who only volunteer, Millennials do so at 3.25 times the rate of Baby Boomers, 2.6 times that of seniors, and 1.3 times more than members of Generation X. In effect, at least in the current economy, Millennials have more time than money.
As Peterson points out, when respondents were asked whether they had increased their civic participation in the past year, Gen-Xers led the way with 39% answering “yes” surpassing Millennials (29%), Boomers (26%), and seniors (25%). He dismisses the possibility that this might reflect improvements in previously low engagement levels among Gen-Xers, but actually it does. According to the U.S. Department of Education in 1984, when all of them were Gen-Xers, only a quarter (27%) of high school students participated in community service. Twenty years later, when all high school students were Millennials about three times as many (80%) did so. It could be argued that this increase occurred simply because by 2004 students were required to be active in their communities while they weren’t previously. But, for whatever reason, Millennials better seemed to internalize the lessons about community service to which they were exposed in high school. In 1989, 13% of those participating in the National Service organizations like the Peace Corps and Teachers Corps were from Generation X, about the percentage contribution of the generation to the U.S. population at that time. In 2006, 26% of National Service participants were Millennials, twice their percentage in the population.
Peterson also maintains the voting turnout of Generation X equals that of Millennials when the two generations were of similar age. To demonstrate this he compares youth turnout in the 1992 and 2008 presidential elections. According to CIRCLE, a non-partisan organization that studies and attempts to increase the political participation of young people, 18-29 years did indeed vote at similar rates in 1992 when those of that age were Gen-Xers (50%) and in 2008 when that age group consisted primarily of Millennials (52% overall and 59% in the competitive battleground states in which the Obama and McCain campaigns concentrated their efforts).
What Peterson did not do is to report on what occurred in all of the elections between 1992 and 2008. This provides more nuanced data that is generally more favorable to Millennials. For example, in 1996, when again all young voters were members of Generation X, youth electoral participation fell to 37%, the lowest of any year for which CIRCLE reports data. Youth voting began to steadily increase starting in 2000 as the first Millennials attained voting age until, in 2008, it reached the highest level since 1972.
But, Peterson’s biggest unhappiness with those of us who “gush” about the Millennials really seems to be his belief that we extol them for partisan reasons. It is true that Millennials lean heavily to the Democratic Party. They supported Barack Obama against John McCain by a greater than 2:1 margin (66% vs. 32%) and, according to Pew, last October identified as Democrats over Republicans by 52% vs. 34%. They are also the first generation in at least four to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives.
We certainly don’t hide the fact that we are life-long Democrats, something we clearly pointed out in the introduction to our book even as we made every effort to be evenhanded in our examination of American politics. That evenhanded examination suggests that as a civic generation, at this point in American history, it is hard to imagine most Millennials being anything other than Democrats. Civic generations, like the Millennials, favor societal and governmental solutions to the problems facing America. At least since the New Deal, the Democratic Party has had more affinity for such approaches than the GOP. It is for this reason that the GI Generation (Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation) became lifelong Democrats in the 1930s and why we believe most Millennials now see themselves as Democrats and vote that way. For Peterson to wish that were different won’t make it so.
But, in the end, all generational archetypes play key roles in the mosaic of American life. In truth, no generation is somehow “better” or “worse” than another. When the civic GI Generation served America so nobly and effectively in World War II, members of the idealist Missionary Generation like Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired it and it was commanded in battle by great generals from the reactive Lost Generation such as Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton. America now faces a new set of grave issues. It will take the concerted efforts of all generations to confront and resolve them.
The Democrats’ loss in Tuesday’s special election for U.S. senator in the dark blue state of Massachusetts, after losses in Virginia and New Jersey last year, should finally make it clear to all but the party’s most out-of-touch campaign strategists that the only route to victory is to follow the path President Barack Obama took to win in 2008 and quit trying to recreate the politics of the Clinton era. All four Ms — messenger, message, media and money — of the party’s campaign plans must change if it is to win in 2010.
Martha Coakley was the kind of messenger that Democrats used to look for in the 1990s — tough on crime, connected to the party establishment, and with elective experience to command respect. But that formula didn’t work for Hillary Clinton in 2008 and it didn’t work so well this time either. Her background prevented her from running as an anti-establishment candidate and her disconnect from the average voter in Massachusetts can be summed up in one name — Curt Schilling. Future Democratic messengers, like Obama in 2008, will have to have demonstrated their ability to lead change in their community and not take any vote for granted.
That is the only way they will be able to deliver Obama’s message of change and transformation with any credibility. Instead of defending programs or arguing policy, Democrats will need a message that captures the anger and frustration of the electorate and channels that passion into job creation and reform of the existing economic power structure.
Coakley, just like the Democratic gubernatorial candidates who lost last year, also let the technological superiority of Obama’s 2008 campaign flip over to the Republican side. Unlike Democratic campaign strategists still wrapped up in old media tactics and television, the Republicans studied what Obama did to bring the power of online campaigning into the center of a campaign’s strategy, and won the “Internet/Twitter” wars hands down. The TV ads that Coakley did run were off-target, featuring older white voters rather than the young Millennials, African-Americans, and Latinos who were so crucial to Barack Obama’s winning coalition in 2008. Meanwhile Brown put his Millennial daughters front and center in his media.
All of these advantages led to Brown’s ability to raise money at a million dollars a day pace in the final days of the campaign. Obama, indeed Howard Dean before him, showed how to use the Net to raise lots of money from lots of people but only Republicans seem to have learned the lesson.
Perhaps the Democrats should bring David Plouffe back and have him conduct some “re-education camps” for Democratic strategists where they can learn the new four Ms of politics and erase their old ways of doing business from their minds for good.
The tectonic plates of the nation's educational debate shifted dramatically in California last week when its supposedly dysfunctional, lopsidedly Democratic legislature passed the most far reaching educational reform program in the nation, and California's "post-partisan" Republican Governor happily signed it. Going beyond other states' efforts to respond to President Obama's "Race to the Top" competitive grant process, the state pulled the "Parent Trigger" in its legislation. This allows a majority of parents whose kids are attending a "demonstrably failing school" to, in effect, take over that school and change its governance, administration and teaching staff. In so doing, California placed itself in the vanguard of the transformation of America's K-12 education system that will put parents, not teachers or administrators, in the driver's seat in determining the kind of education that their special Millennial children will receive.
Just as we predicted in our book, Millennial Makeover: "Social networks, 'mommy blogs', and other forms of peer-to-peer communications" were the vehicle by which this parent led, bottom-up revolt overturned the power of some of California's most powerful unions to pass what Sacramento insiders considered a hopeless cause. Every time labor and its allies attempted to water down the impact of the Parent Trigger, the opposition melted in the face of thousands of parents asking a simple question, with only one good answer: "Why shouldn't parents get to decide what kind of school their kids go to?" A final compromise limited the number of schools that parents can pull the trigger on to just 75 initially. However, the future of this idea is just as bright as the state's Charter School movement, which started with similar limitations yet today is the governance model for more than 160 schools in Los Angeles alone and with enrollments rising almost 20% in the last year.
The organization behind the Parent Trigger concept, Parent Revolution, gives full credit to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration for creating the incentives that forced the state to consider this reform. Tucked inside the so-called stimulus bill passed last February, was over $4 billion for states and school districts to transform the performance of their schools. States that prohibit linking data on student achievement to principal and teacher evaluations, as California did before it passed this latest round of educational reform laws, were disqualified from even applying for these grants. In addition, those states that capped charter schools or limited alternative certification processes for teachers lose points in the competitive rankings for receipt of the grants. Most importantly, the program established a January, 2010 deadline for state laws to meet four conditions or "assurances" in order to be considered for the largest amount of reform incentive dollars in the last three decades:
Adoption of common, internationally benchmarked, standards based on rigorous state assessments.
Establishment of systems to track achievement and growth in student learning that identify effective instructional practices.
Implementation of a process that rewards and retains top teachers and improves or replaces bad ones.
Adoption of a policy on how to replace staff and change the culture of a demonstrably failing school (one whose test scores show no improvement over three years).
The need for money as well as the fourth and final assurance were the drivers behind the legislature's consideration of the idea of a Parent Trigger, but it was the grass roots organization that pushed the legislature into turning back pleas from their usual union allies and enacting this earth-shattering reform. Beginning in Los Angeles, whose "unified school district" (LAUSD) has been a poster child for bureaucratic stubbornness and urban educational woes, the Parents Revolution won the right to fire the principal and half the teachers of a failing school, or, in the alternative, to establish a charter school of their design for their children to attend. Recognizing that each child has $7,000 of potential state funding in their backpack, LAUSD was the first to agree to these demands by parents at both a mostly Latino high school and a more upscale, suburban area middle school. With those successes in their pocket, the group was able to rally parents of all types, from every part of the state, to lobby for the same rights in their district.
Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution and a long-time political activist on behalf of children, believes it will not be long before the same rights are given to every parent in the country, possibly as part of Congress's reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind legislation next year. As he points out, "the old coalitions don't apply here, it's a cause that unites parents from upper middle class and working class backgrounds-white, black and Latino alike." Or, as we said in Millennial Makeover, parents will learn about and demand:
"Models that produce superior results at lower costs and provide the aggregating mechanism for a new, decentralized, parent-controlled, educational decision-making system. Armed with new information on graduation and college acceptance rates of America's high schools, parents will choose the type of education they want for their child, with the money following the child to the school they have selected, not to the school district they live in...The result will be a system of public education that mirrors the egalitarian and community orientation of a Millennial civic era."
For the parents of students attending one of the 5000 lowest performing schools in the country, the changes can't come too soon. With an administration ready to play a critical role in providing the incentives to reform our schools, students, parents, administrators and teachers throughout the nation will soon be feeling the aftershocks of California's educational earthquake.
As Congress returns from its holiday vacation, it and President Barack Obama need to address a number of challenges facing the country from health care reform to jobs and what strategy to pursue in Afghanistan. How the Democratic leadership deals with these issues may well determine the future loyalty of an entire generation of new voters, and with it the future of the Democratic Party.
A recent study by two economists, Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilembergo, entitled "Growing Up in a Recession," suggests that experiencing an economic recession during the impressionable ages of 18-25 can have lifelong effects on a person's attitude toward government and its role in the economy. The Democratic Party's most enthusiastic and loyal new constituency, Millennials (born 1982- 2003), have had their young lives thoroughly disrupted by the current economic downturn. With their level of unemployment exceeding 25%, what is for other generations a Great Recession is for Millennials their very own Great Depression. Such an experience is likely, according to the new study, to increase Millennial support for policies that favor government redistribution of income and other liberal economic ideas.
However, Giuliano and Spilembergo also demonstrate that this same experience often makes young people less trusting of government institutions. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat suggested recently that the difference between the Democratic New Deal loyalties of the GI Generation that came of age during the Great Depression and the greater Republican orientation of Generation X that experienced Jimmy Carter's stagflation economy in the 1970s is the degree to which government dealt effectively with the economic crisis of their youth. "When liberal interventions seem to be effective, a downturn can help midwife an enduring Democratic majority. But if they don't seem to be working - or worse, if they seem to be working for insiders and favored constituencies, rather than for the common man - then suspicion of state power can trump disillusionment with free markets."
This raises the stakes for what Congress does in the next six months to new heights. Millennials, more than one-third of whom lack health insurance, will be watching closely to see if their needs are addressed in the final version of health care reform, something Millennials support to a far greater extent than any other generation. Of course, failure to pass meaningful reform may well sound a death knell for the emerging Democratic majority that the Obama campaign created last year.
But Millennials care even more about jobs and the health of the economy. With record unemployment among members of this generation, any jobs package Congress puts forward must specifically meet the concerns and needs of Millennials. In particular, Congress must deal with the high cost of education (something Millennials still see as the ticket to future economic success), the lack of job opportunities even at the intern level for those just entering the work force, and the lack of access to fundamental job skills training that community colleges can provide to those ready to go to work soon.
While the Democratic leadership often believes that today's youth thinks about issues of war and peace in the same reflexive way that young Baby Boomers did four decades ago, Millennials are more likely to want to understand the mission and strategy for success in Afghanistan before making up their mind on whether or not to support a deepening American involvement in that conflict. With Millennials providing the overwhelming majority of front line troops, however Congress chooses to pay for that campaign, it must ensure that those who do go to fight are better equipped than the military force George W. Bush initially sent to Iraq.
The effectiveness of any legislation Congress adopts over the next six months will not be known for years, but the way Congressional Democrats approach their policy decisions will be clear enough to Millennials. The stakes are large and will have long-reaching impact. If the decisions are made by cutting deals with special interest groups, none of which represent this generation and its financial concerns, or by compromising Millennial principles of equity and social justice, members of the generation are likely to sit out the 2010 midterm elections and wait for their favorite messenger, Barack Obama, to return to the ballot in 2012 before making their future preferences known. If that happens, the results in the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey last month will only be a prelude for a much bigger Democratic disaster next November. If, instead, Democratic leaders take off their generational blinders and recognize that the base of their party is now made up of an overlapping core of Millennials, minorities, and women and respond accordingly, they will help to solidify the Democratic loyalties of America's largest generation for decades to come.
This month’s off year elections sent one message to Washington that has been heard loud and clear. Voters expect Congress to focus on the economy, especially employment, and take decisive and affirmative steps to deal with both the causes and ravages of the greatest economic downturn in the U.S. since the Great Depression. As the Obama administration considers a variety of new proposals to help bring down the unemployment rate, one key constituency is raising its voice and asking for a return on the investment it made in his presidency.
Members of the Millennial generation, born between 1982-2003, who were eligible to vote in 2008 went for Barack Obama over John McCain by a 2:1 margin and made up over 80% of the President’s winning margin. They continue to support his presidency and identify as Democrats by similar margins. A late October Pew survey indicates that Millennials identify as Democrats over Republicans by almost 20 percentage points (52% vs. 34%), well above the 8-point Democratic advantage among older generations. In the latest Research 2000 weekly tracking survey conducted for Daily Kos, 80% of Millennials had a favorable opinion of the president; only 14% of everyone in this generation viewed him unfavorably. This compares with a 55% vs. 39% favorable/unfavorable ratio among the entire electorate in both the Research 2000 survey and in a series of November surveys conducted by organizations ranging from ABC News and the Washington Post to Fox, although some other polls put the President’s job performance ratings closer to 50%.
But despite the clearly stronger support the President has among their generation, Millennials are increasingly restive about the lack of action in Congress to address the economic problems they face – both now and in the future.
Recent Pew research studies underline the major impact that the recession has had on individual Americans and their families. Thirteen percent of parents with grown children told Pew researchers that one of their adult sons or daughters had moved back home in the past year. Pew found that of all grown children living with their parents, 2 in 10 were full-time students, one-quarter were unemployed and about one-third had lived on their own before returning home. According to the census, 56 percent of men 18 to 24 years old and 48 percent of women were either still under the same roof as their parents or had moved back home.
The lack of jobs was particularly acute among adult members of the Millennial Generation (18-27 year olds), 61% of whom said that they or someone close to them was jobless recently. A clear plurality (46%) says that the “job situation” rather than rising prices (27%), problems in the financial markets (14%) and declining real estate values (7%) is their major economic worry.
As a result, the number one concern among Millennials is the state of the economy and the need for jobs, but they have a unique perspective on how to deal with this issue.
Millennials believe there is a clear link between education and employment and are increasingly concerned that the pathway through the educational system into the world of work is becoming increasingly more difficult and expensive to navigate. Last week, about one hundred of the nation’s top private sector and government leaders gathered for the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council also identified education as the nation’s top economic priority.
For Millennials, the problem is personal. A smaller share of 16-to-24-year-olds – 46 percent – is currently employed than at any time since the government began collecting that data in 1948. A job market with Depression-level youth unemployment (18.5%) and a wrenching transformation in the types of jobs America needs and produces makes the implicit bargain of education in return for future economic success harder for Millennials to believe in every day.
Recently Matt Segal, Executive Director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE) and Founder and National Co-Chair of the “80 Million Strong for Young Americans Job Coalition” presented some ideas to the House Education and Labor Committee on what Congress could do to address this challenge. He advocated increased entrepreneurial resources be made available to youth; more access to public service careers through internships and loan forgiveness programs; and the creation of “mission critical” jobs in such fields as health care, cyber-security and the environment that would tap the unique talents of this generation. Since two-thirds of Millennials who graduate from a four-year college do so with over $20,000 in debt, debt, his testimony also urged immediate Senate approval of the student debt reform bill recently passed by the House.
There is more that can be done beyond these excellent recommendations. This summer, the President's Council of Economic Advisors released a report outlining the importance of community colleges in making America's workforce more competitive in the global economy. "We believe it's time to reform our community colleges so that they provide Americans of all ages a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to compete for the jobs of the future." The report urged Congress to pass House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larsen’s bill, The Community College Technology Access Act of 2009, in order to help meet President Obama’s goal of graduating five million more Americans from community colleges by 2020.
Millennials, like their GI Generation great grandparents in the 1930s, are facing economic challenges that caught them by surprise and for which no one prepared them. But Millennials aren’t looking for a handout or sympathy. Instead, in the “can do” spirit of their generation, they are organizing to overcome the challenges created for them by their elders. It’s time for the Democrats who control Congress to recognize these concerns and to act decisively on their behalf.
Pundits were quick to point out that the percentage of Millennial voters (those 29 and younger) in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections last week were roughly half of what they were in 2008. This led the voice of what passes for wisdom inside the Beltway, Charlie Cook, to proclaim, "we knew that young and minority voters who had never cast a ballot before they did for Barack Obama last year were very unlikely to show up at the polls this year or next."
His extrapolation of two state's unique odd year election results into a guaranteed outcome in the 2010 general election is breathtaking for what it reveals about Cook's own biases and those of his peers. It's reminiscent of James Carville's comments prior to Barack Obama's 2008 primary triumph that "we have a word in politics for those who are counting on the youth vote to win. We call them losers." But at least Carville saw the light after looking at the surge in young voters for Democrats in 2008 and recognizing that a new generation, with different attitudes toward political participation than the preceding generation, Generation X, had arrived in the American electorate.
Unfortunately, too many of those operating as if the world didn't change in 2008 are Democrats, whose misreading of last week's results could cost the party dearly in 2010. The two gubernatorial losses cannot simply be dismissed, as the White House tried to do, as merely a reflection of circumstances unique to New Jersey and Virginia, unrelated to national campaign strategy. In reality, the 2009 election returns once again demonstrated the importance of aligning all four M's of political campaigns--Messenger, Message, Media and Money-with Millennial Generation attitudes and behavior if any campaign, Democrat or Republican, hopes to be as successful in winning the votes of young people as Barack Obama was in 2008.
A year ago Obama won 60% of the vote in Virginia among 18-29 year-olds. In New Jersey his margin was even greater, 67%. Even after taking into account Obama's overwhelming support among minorities and considering only white Millennials, the appeal of this particular messenger to this cohort is clear. Nationally, Obama won 54% of all white Millennial Generation voters. He won 42% of white Millennials in Virginia, reflecting that Southern state's relatively conservative views. But even this was well above the support Obama received from older white voters. He also carried 58% of New Jersey white Millennials, reflecting the overall partisan and ideological orientation of that state.
Neither Democratic gubernatorial candidate in last week's election had a biography that matched the bi-racial, community organizer, outsider image of the President. Jon Corzine's Wall Street riches and political insider image hardly matches the selfless, socially concerned profile of Obama. Corzine's lesser appeal to Millennials is partially a reflection of that difference. While Millennials were the only generational cohort to prefer Corzine over the Republican winner, Chris Christie, Corzine's support fell to 57% among all Millennials and 42% among white Millennials. Coupled with the decline in the Millennial Generation's contribution to the electorate, from 17% to 9%, even this level of support wasn't enough to re-elect Corzine.
Creigh Deeds' bio was even less like Obama's, with a political career focused on playing the inside game in the State Capitol and appealing to the good old boys in rural Virginia. This was one reason he became one of the first Democrats to actually lose the Millennial vote to a Republican, 44% for Deeds vs. 54% for McDonnell. And despite his focus on attempting to win over more conservative Democrats, Deeds actually lost white Millennials to McDonnell by a 2:1 margin.
But the President's appeal to Millennials went beyond his unique personal qualities. He also had a message that helped engage and motivate young people from its overall theme of change to his specific call to help young people pay for college by expanding opportunities to serve their community. By contrast, Corzine's record contained nothing that was particularly appealing to Millennials. And Deeds' attempt to run a campaign based on social issues ran directly counter to the Millennial Generation's greater interest in pressing economic issues like jobs. McDonnell's campaign, by contrast was focused like a laser, as President Bill Clinton used to say, on the state's need to improve economic opportunity for all of its citizens.
Still, having the right messenger and message will not win over Millennials unless a campaign reaches out to them using the media to which they pay attention, expending sufficient resources to break through the daily chatter that is also a part of the generation's unique behavior. Corzine certainly spent plenty of his personal money on his campaign, but most of that money was devoted to television commercials, the least effective way to reach Millennials. By contrast, in Virginia, McDonnell used the Internet extensively, including a major Google ad buy late in the campaign, to make sure his message of social issue moderation and economic opportunity was heard by Millennials.
There are many things that are different about this newest generation of Americans. At this point, Millennials identify as Democrats by nearly 2:1 and are the first generation in forty years to contain more self-perceived liberals than conservatives. Millennials are positioned to make the Democrats the majority party for decades. But Democrats cannot take them for granted because in one very fundamental way Millennials are no different than any older generation.
Like all voters, Millennials are more likely to participate in elections and vote for candidates who appeal to their concerns with a convincing and credible message that is heard often enough to make an impact. Democrats should take a lesson from their President's successful campaign in 2008 that used that formula to win two out of three Millennial votes. Or, they could spend some more time analyzing and explaining away last week's two gubernatorial defeats only to discover that Republicans have already completed their analysis and are ready to launch a campaign with just the right four M's to appeal to Millennials and give the GOP victory in 2010.