RALEIGH — Young adults largely supported Barack Obama’s message of hope and change during his 2008 presidential campaign. Now, four years later, many young people are struggling with the impact of the nation’s economic changes. Paul Conway, former chief of staff for both the U.S. Department of Labor and Office of Personnel Management, is president of the group Generation Opportunity. Conway described his group’s work with young adults during an interview with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)
Kokai: First of all, Generation Opportunity, what are you working on?
Conway: We’re a 501(c)(4) organization, based in Virginia. We’re nonprofit, nonpartisan, and we’re specifically focused on those who are 18 to 29, across the U.S. College, noncollege, and young professionals. We work on a number of issues, including young unemployment.
And so, for example, when [this summer] you had the Labor Department come out with their 8.3 percent unemployment figure, nationally, we do a specific cut on that for young adults, 18 to 29. And that rate is 12.7 percent, with an additional 1.7 million who are no longer counted. If you were to fold those in, you’d have an actual unemployment rate for 18- to 29-year-olds of 16.7 million, which is one of the highest figures since World War II.
Kokai: You mentioned that it’s not unprecedented, but almost unprecedented, to have that level. This has to be something that young people are just not accustomed to dealing with, not having the opportunity, as the title of your group suggests, to be able to get a job.
Conway: No, it is very frustrating for them. And the new reality for many of these folks across the country is a series of part-time jobs, not full-time jobs that are meaningful in a career path of their choice. And because of that frustration, and because of the original promise of hope and change in 2008, we think that the economy and the lack of economic opportunity will be a very central issue in the 2012 election.
Kokai: Why has this situation come to pass for young people?
Conway: [A] couple of different reasons. One, when you have an economy that’s down and you have a federal government that’s pushing policies that are high-tax, high-regulation, [that] creates a great deal of hesitancy among those who have the courage and the means to invest and create more jobs.
The second interesting dynamic that you have going on is older workers are staying in the work force far longer because they’ve lost money for retirement and those things, so they want to keep working. That dual dynamic of the lack of the creation of entry-level jobs and older workers staying in longer has created, pretty much, a double whammy for those who are young and trying to find work.
Kokai: Among the young people who you are working with and talking to, is there much of an understanding that this phenomenon is taking place? Or do they get the tie between what’s happening with policy and the economy, and what’s happening for them personally?
Conway: They very much understand it. As a matter of fact, 77 percent of young folks have already indicated that they have either delayed or will delay a major life decision because of the bad economy. That includes buying homes, 44 percent, saving for retirement, 28 percent, 27 percent are putting off paying off student loans, 18 percent are putting off the decision to get married, and 23 percent are putting off the decision to have kids.
When you take a look at that, what you’re looking at is a demographic that full well understands the day-to-day reality of not having work, but also understands the implications in their own lives for their future.
Kokai: Moving forward, what needs to happen to create the opportunity again for this generation?
Conway: I think, probably, one of the most important things for elected officials to do — and policy leaders — is to actually listen to them. And what they’re saying overwhelmingly, in a great majority, is this: that if you cut taxes on business profits, that spurs economic opportunity and more hiring. If government gets out of the way of those who are trying to actually create jobs, meaning less government interference, you will actually have more people who want to create enterprise and go into business for themselves.
So already, the generation understands that government, especially the federal government, has a dampening effect on the creation of economic opportunity. For our organization in particular, we’re very interested in how all these issues tie together — higher taxes, regulation, the lack of choice in education for parents. All these things lead to an issue of American competitiveness.
And when you think about this demographic in particular, now for 18 to 20 years they’ve heard that America operates on a world stage, and that we compete with China and India. So it only makes sense, in their minds, that in order for this country to remain strong and competitive, and for them to have jobs in the future, that America should not be indebted to foreign powers, that the federal government should stop spending so much money, and that it should be wiser in the choices of spending that it makes. And it should take a very hard look at those things that are not working in government and stop funding them.
Kokai: One of the things that comes to mind with the work that you’re doing is that it makes it harder for businesses to hire these young people. I also imagine that the regulatory climate, the tax climate, would make it harder for these young people who wanted to start their own businesses — to say, “Forget working for someone else, I’d like to start my own business.” It’s harder for them to do that, too.
Conway: Very much so. And what you see is in different pockets of the country, a great deal of frustration aimed at the government and the president, especially in different sectors. [I’ll] give you an example. If you take a look at the coal industry in West Virginia, and in southwest Virginia, and Ohio, and places like that, what you have is the president and the [Environmental Protection Agency] doing a series of regulations that are effectively shutting down coal mines and shutting down communities.
People aspire to go into the energy sector, and whether it’s in coal, oil, gas exploration on the Gulf of Mexico, many of them have taken on four-year degrees and advanced degrees because they aspire to have a career in that field. But because of the actions of the federal government, specifically in oil and gas exploration and limiting that, and also in the coal industry, you have a tremendous number of young people that are very frustrated.
Two reasons: One, they don’t understand why a job is being cut off by the government, and two, if you ask young Americans, “What are the top national security issues?” the second issue they mention as a priority for the country is energy independence. So it makes no sense to them why the government, through regulation and through policy, would actually put America in a less competitive position, and risk security, by making us more dependent on foreign sources of energy when we have it here at home to produce.
Kokai: Some people are going to hear us and say, “Wait a minute. In 2008 the economy was in bad shape. It was tanking because of previous policies. Barack Obama came in. His policies haven’t worked as well, perhaps, as promised, but we’re now moving in the right direction. There’s no need to change the taxes [and] regulatory scheme.” What’s your response?
Conway: Well, some people might say that. In fact, some people are self-appointed experts, and they say that. We tend to listen to the young Americans the most closely, and here’s what they’re saying. They’re saying that only 31 percent of them approve of the president’s handling of youth unemployment. And while in 2008, 66 percent of young Americans voted for Barack Obama, this time around we think it’s going to be far different.
As a matter of fact, [this summer] a Service Employees International Union poll came out. It was done by [Public Policy Polling], here in North Carolina. It was put out in the Daily Kos. And in that poll, it showed that 77 percent of young adults 18 to 29 think the country is going in the wrong direction. Only 22 percent think it’s going in the right direction. And of those who are asked on a straight-ballot test, 49 percent indicated they would go with President Obama; 41 percent indicated they would go with Mitt Romney; 10 percent said that they were fully undecided, meaning that’s a swing vote. That’s a substantial swing vote in the last hundred days of an election.
And from our standpoint, the message is pretty clear to candidates in both parties. You need to approach folks intelligently, reach them on communication platforms that they operate on, and put policy options for them to decide, because it’s a very smart and discerning generation. If they think your policy is going to result in even less economic opportunity, you’re not going to win their support.