How Will Young People Respond to Their Unhappiness?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I recently ran across a piece by one Ron Fournier. Fournier attempts to predict what the young generation might do politically in the face of shrinking economic opportunities. My thoughts on this have provided me with an opportunity to follow up on my unexpectedly popular piece, “Why are Young People Unhappy?”. In that piece, I argued that young people have diminished economic opportunities relative to past generations and as a result are less able to pursue their conceptions of happiness. In recent days, I have run across a variety of views about how young people might respond to this (including Fournier’s), and I’d like to discuss the question further.

Fournier points to evidence indicating that young people have developed a rather cynical attitude toward the government as a result of its failure to secure for them the economic opportunity their parents confidently promised them:

  • Young people’s trust in America’s political institutions has fallen by 5 percentage points or more in the last 3 years for the supreme court, the president, the UN, the federal government, and congress. None of these institutions have the trust of a majority of young people. Trust in the media and in Wall Street does not even make it into the teens.
  • 59% of young people agree strongly or somewhat that elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons, 5 points higher than in 2010
  • 56% believe that elected officials do not share their priorities, 5 points higher than in 2010
  • 48% object to the partisanship in American politics, 2 points higher than in 2010
  • 28% believe that political involvement does not produce tangible results, 5 points higher than in 2010
  • 47% believe that our political system is no longer able to solve our problems, with 36% undecided and a mere 16% disagreeing

That said, the data is not indicative of apathy. The study also shows that young people have the highest volunteering rates of all age groups, with 53% volunteering in the last year. Fournier takes all of this together and arrives at the conclusion that young people care deeply about the state of their communities but do not believe that traditional electoral political activity is an efficacious method of pursuing their political goals. This is indeed alarming–young people have political goals, but think that the political system is not the right way to pursue those goals.

Fournier tells a narrative tale about how young people have come to arrive at this position. Young people were excited about the possibilities for “hope” and “change” in 2008. There was a belief that the Obama administration could do for this country what the Roosevelt administration did for it in the 30’s and 40’s–radically reform the economic system and restore prosperity and opportunity. Of course, recent years have seen this hope dashed. Outside of the Affordable Care Act (which, we must remember, was scaled down–it was originally meant to include a public option), the Obama administration has produced no major legislative achievements. College costs have continued to rise, employment rates remain depressed, wages remain stagnant, and opportunities remain slim. Fournier envisions a generation alienated from our political system by these failures. He believes that socially conscious young people will instead choose one of two paths:

  1. Young people will pursue non-governmental solutions to problems through charities, the private sector, grassroots bottom-up local solutions.
  2. Young people will radically change and/or replace the political system.

I don’t have quantitative data indicative of which way the majority of young people are leaning. I can, however, offer my own anecdotal case–I am a 21-year old whose life focus is on the political. I can report for myself that I have indeed been deeply affected and influenced by the events that have transpired since 2008. I backed Obama in that year and went so far as to do some phone-calling for the campaign, though I was too young to vote.  I was not satisfied with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act or the Affordable Care Act. Even with control of both houses of congress and the presidency, the democrats were unable to do much. This surprised me at the time, and throttled what had been a childhood goal of pursuing elected office democratically–instead, I resolved to go into academia. Nonetheless, the Democrats got my vote in the 2010 midterms, the first and last time I have voted.  Then the Tea Party swept into congress, created a debt ceiling crisis, and successfully coerced the administration into signing the Budget Control Act of 2011. It was in the midst of all of these things that my confidence in the political system was finished off.  In 2010, the right was able to successfully convince the public that policies that got us into the economic crisis were themselves the answer to that crisis. It had not occurred to me that the public was capable of making a mistake of that scale. Furthermore, the administration ultimately went along with this change in attitude and direction and indeed contributed to it. This illustrated to me that the Obama administration was not committed to serious reform or capable of pushing it through.

So where has this left me? I have resisted the emotional urge to blame the administration and/or the congress for our present troubles. Instead I have become a vocal critic of the structure of the political system, the various forces that cause individual office-holders to behave as they do. I have become a proponent of replacing these defective structures with ones that correct the problems I have observed. I have become the sophiarchist–I want to replace our democracy with an entirely alternative system, which you can read about here. For our purposes in this piece, I am firmly in the second camp, those who want to radically change and/or replace the system. I am not anti-hierarchy or anti-institutions. I believe that well-designed political structures are still the best way to pursue political objectives, that those who imagine otherwise are in the grips of an optimistic delusion.

What about those in that first camp? These people believe that they can bring about meaningful change and progress without altering the political structure. They are often inclined to oppose radical structural reforms like my own on the grounds that such reforms are high risk and would perpetuate new hierarchies that they wish torn down. I have an answer for them.

If you believe that the best way to pursue political objectives lays outside the present political system (as these individuals do), then it follows from there that there is something wrong with the political system. It is clearly not fit for purpose. It’s not the best means of accomplishing the very tasks it was created to accomplish. If it were, you would want to work within it, not around it. Furthermore, the political system is not a neutral entity–if it is not helping to bring about improvements, it is at the very least perpetuating a damaging status quo. It may even be actively contributing to the worsening of affairs. We cannot ignore the political structure. If we do, it will continue to act in a way that undermines whatever efforts we make elsewhere. While it is frightening and anxiety-producing to seriously contemplate big-time structural changes, these changes must be made. Ignoring a flawed political system does not make it go away. It may well be a good thing to pursue positive ends through charities, the private sector, grassroots, and so on, but it is not sufficient to do so. The flaws in the political system must be addressed.

Other authors often content themselves to dismiss coming structural change by arguing that young people are no more dissatisfied with the politics of the day than the hippy generation was in the late 60’s and early 70’s. But I would offer this counterpoint–the hippies got excited about the McGovern campaign. At least for my part, there is no candidate among any of the parties who could run for president and restore my confidence in this political system. For myself, and for I believe many young people today, the crisis of confidence is not in the policies of the current government, but in the structure of this system and the kinds of behaviors it entails and encourages. Increasingly, we no longer believe that we could get someone elected through the present system in such a way that it would make a substantive difference. We lack confidence not merely in republicans and democrats, but in the political class as a group, in congress, in the institutions and the way they function. It may not yet be widely recognized, but these are all nascent forms of a larger trend, still in its infancy–the loss of confidence in the democratic system itself.