The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Millennial turnout is crucial. Too bad pols have no idea what young people care about.

Again, this time with feeling: It's about the economy, stupid.

Lena Dunham is wrong about what will make millennials vote. (JoJo Whilden/HBO via Associated Press)

Rock the Vote, the turnout organization geared toward voters ages 18 to 24, thinks it knows what they want. In its intended-to-be-viral video released this month, “#TURNOUTFORWHAT” (after rapper Lil Jon’s song “Turn Down for What”), millennial icons such as Lil Jon, Lena Dunham, Fred Armisen explain that they’re going to vote because of marijuana legalization, reproductive rights and climate change — issues that, they think, will drive young people to the polls on Tuesday. They aren’t alone: The press, political parties and advocacy groups parrot the same messages to new voters.

There’s just one problem: Young voters, who tend to stay home during midterms, care most about the issue that all other Americans care about: employment, and how to secure a decent income in a reawakening economy. In an election that, we are told, will be determined by turnout, organizers and pols still have no idea how to speak to young people.

The naivete is widespread. Columnists, politicians, organizers and campaign consultants continually float non-economic issues such as marijuana or global warming as the miracle elixir for young voters’ lethargy. Yet they perfectly understand how government programs such as Social Security matter to seniors or tax credits and loans matter to middle-aged adults. Even when attempting to approach millennial economics, they get it wrong: President Obama’s recent appeal to youths through an essay on Medium talked mostly about innovation, devoting only one sentence to unemployment. He completely ignored the minimum wage, internships, or temporary and part-time work, despite the particular relevance to the demographic.

Yet millennials are perfectly clear about the primacy of traditional economic concerns to their voting. In Fusion’s Massive Millennial Poll from this month, the largest recent survey of this segment, potential voters named “the economy” their most important issue by far (twice as popular as “education”; seven times as popular as “climate change”).

That’s an understandable perspective when the unemployment rate for the 20-24 age group is about twice the national average, wage growth for recent graduates has been even more sluggish than for other groups, and signs indicate we will be no more upwardly mobile than our parents. We are excelling in some sense: We helped student debt break the $1 trillion mark, we are noted for our thriftiness, and our economic “scars” get us compared to people who lived through the Great Depression.

Not a single political ad this cycle mentioned internships, AmeriCorps or job training.

Yet real solutions are nowhere to be found. The minimum-wage issue has popped up in some races (such as Alison Lundergan Grimes vs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky), and student loan financing became a small issue in New Hampshire’s Senate race. Some races pay lip service to college financing and student debt loads (never mind that the topic extends far beyond millennials). But they have nothing to say about three core economic questions for young workers: internships, the AmeriCorps program and job training.

Internships symbolize a host of millennial problems: youth unemployment, wage sluggishness, labor precarity and reduced mobility. The million-plus internships taken every year, very often unpaid, replace entry-level jobs, increase temporary work turnover and ensure that the rich pass on careers only to those who can afford to pay to play. The behavior of this year’s candidates says enough: Of all candidates in the eight closest Senate races, only one incumbent Democrat (Begich) and two Republicans (Roberts and McConnell) pay their interns. Consciously or not, almost everyone running for office now actively reinforces the growing traps of the millennial economic experience.

On AmeriCorps, the national service program that could have been the single-fastest boon to youth employment, there’s no movement either. After Obama vowed in 2009 to create 170,000 new AmeriCorps positions, the GOP-led House refused funding for the expansion and tried to eliminate the program. High- as well as low-income youths could benefit from even the low-paid service positions, but there are no ad campaigns, no debate mentions and no plan to advance the ball in Washington.

Job training and apprenticeship programs aren’t prominent in campaigns. Federal money for training programs has been decreasing for decades without much outcry, and apprenticeship programs — which, in other countries, are wildly effective — are still nearly nonexistent in the United States. As the Center for American Progress noted in a report last year, the federal government shirks on supporting this crucial jobs scheme. It provides no incentive for businesses to take on apprentices, and the programs that already exist are insufficiently coordinated, researched or held to high standards. Apprenticeships could be a big idea for a bold candidate, but it doesn’t seem that any of them have even considered the concept (preferring instead to stick with their unpaid interns).

Elizabeth Wilner of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks campaign advertising, told me that none of these issues have come up in political ads this cycle across the country. None. Instead, groups haphazardly court young voters through misguided assumptions of our voting preferences. Colorado is a case in point. There, groups are spending millions on climate change and the environment to court young voters. It’s no wonder millennials stay home: turn out for what, exactly?

This situation — in which our concerns aren’t truly recognized by either party and are actively hurt by their actions — is unthinkable for other demographics: Imagine if these hopefuls also decided not to offer retirement or health benefits to their regular staff members and didn’t express an opinion on cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Voting would certainly look different among older adults. Some places — such as Texas, where student IDs no longer suffice as voting ID — aren’t just making it hard to live; they’re even making it hard to vote. More, not less, online registration and voting would help, too.

Some of my peers will vote next week, but a good deal more won’t. Most will sit and wait until someone can treat us as constituents and realize that the key to our turnout isn’t all that hard to figure out: It’s the economy, stupid.

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