The Democrats have responded by moving left. In 2013, President Barack Obama signed a bill to cut the budget deficit by slashing hundreds of billions of dollars in spending. But already in 2019, a majority of the House Democratic caucus has co-sponsored a Medicare for All bill. Even those 2020 presidential candidates characterized as moderates, such as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, have endorsed AOC’s Green New Deal, which calls for trillions of dollars of deficit-funded federal spending to transform America’s economy and its energy sector.
If Roosevelt was right, and demographics are destiny, then the Democrats are going to inherit a windfall. Ten years from now, if current population trends hold, Gen Z and Millennials together will make up a majority of the American voting-age population. Twenty years from now, by 2039, they will represent 62 percent of all eligible voters.
If the Democrats can organize these two generations into a political bloc, the consequences could be profound. Key liberal policy priorities—universal Medicare, student loan forgiveness, immigration reform, and even some version of the Green New Deal—would stand a decent chance of becoming law. In the interim, states that are currently deep red could turn blue. A self-identifying “democratic socialist” could win the presidency.
By contrast, from the perspective of pure demographics, the GOP seems to be playing a losing hand. Unless Republicans can find a way to stop young voters’ slide to the left in the 2020s, the party will survive only if it can pull older voters—Boomers and the remaining members of the Silent generation—to the right fast enough to compensate for the leftward shift of the young.
Millennials cannot be blamed for concluding that the economy is rigged against them. True, in absolute terms, Americans under 40 carry less debt than middle-aged Americans. But their debt profile is toxic. Nearly half of it comes from student loans and credit cards. In contrast, 72 percent of the debt held by Americans aged 40 to 49 is mortgage debt, which comes with tax advantages and allows debtors to build home equity as they repay their loans.
Meanwhile, the job market has turned a college education into a lose-lose choice for many young Americans. In 2016, a single year of tuition, room, and board at a private college cost 78 percent of median household income. Most American families can barely afford to send even a single child to college without loans, let alone two or three. Yet young workers without a college degree are deeply disadvantaged in the workforce, and more so all the time.
Young people then struggle to stay above water financially after they graduate. The net worth of the median millennial household has fallen nearly 40 percent since 2007. This is not because they eat too much avocado toast; it is because student loan payments consume the income that they would otherwise save. Headline unemployment figures show that the labor market is humming. It does not feel that way for Millennials, who have never experienced a “good economy.”
It is therefore unsurprising that large majorities of young voters support economic policies that Ocasio-Cortez describes as “socialist.” According to a Harvard poll, 66 percent of Gen Z supports single-payer health care. Sixty-three percent supports making public colleges and universities tuition-free. The same share supports Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal to create a federal jobs guarantee. Many Gen Z voters are not yet in the workforce, but 47 percent support a “militant and powerful labor movement.” Millennial support for these policies is lower, but only slightly.