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A year after graduating from college, 23-year-old Alison Foster is living with her parents in Arlington, Va., and getting by on a part-time, temporary job. Along with a degree in environmental sciences from the University of Vermont, her résumé includes prestigious internships with a member of Congress and the National Park Service, and yet no offers have come. “I didn’t anticipate that a year out I would be barely making any money at all,” she says.
Photograph by Christopher Leaman for Bloomberg Businessweek
Foster’s discontent is a problem for Barack Obama. Many of the young voters crucial to his election of 2008, are now having second thoughts about him—and about whether they’ll bother to vote at all this election. Sixty-six percent of voters under 30 cast ballots for Obama in 2008. Turnout among young people was the highest in 16 years. Their support assured his victory in Indiana and North Carolina, states that had voted Republican for decades. That enthusiasm has dwindled. The portion of 18- to 24-year-olds who say they’ll definitely vote has fallen to 47 percent this year from 64 percent in 2008, according to polls conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. In this age group, Obama leads Mitt Romney 41 percent to 29 percent, compared with 53 percent to 32 percent against John McCain in 2008.
There’s no mystery about why idealism has turned to apathy. The downturn has been disproportionately rough on those who are just starting out. In 2011, one in six 16- to 24-year-olds was idle, neither working nor attending school, according to an analysis by Harvard economist Lawrence Katz. Among 20- to 24-year-old men, almost one in five was idle. As of May, 41 percent of the nation’s net decline in full-time jobs from four years earlier was among under-25-year-olds, an age group that represents just 14 percent of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those under 35 account for 65 percent of the decline in full-time employment, though they make up only 35 percent of the labor force. Even among young people who have full-time work real wages have dropped, while older workers’ pay has kept even or slightly improved.
The normal rites of passage to adulthood have been disrupted. Thirty-one percent of young adults said they’ve postponed marriage or having a child during the downturn, according to a December 2011 Pew Research Center survey of 18- to 34-year-olds. The U.S. birth rate fell more than 11 percent from 2007 to 2011, and the marriage rate dropped 6.8 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. “These people are stuck,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Their life is on hold.” It doesn’t help that older workers can’t afford to retire, slowing the usual job turnover. The number of 70- to 74-year-olds in full-time jobs has swelled by almost a third since May 2008.
Photograph by Christopher Leaman
The effects of this job stagnation at the beginning of young people’s working lives may last for decades. College students who graduated during the recession in the early 1980s suffered wage losses of more than $100,000 over the next 15 years compared to those who came into the job market later in the decade, according to research by Yale University economist Lisa Kahn. “The first five years in a worker’s career are often a very big part of getting set up in the labor market, finding what you’re good at, and getting wage growth,” says Katz. “Now that we’ve essentially had five terrible years, a whole cohort of young people has missed out on those early opportunities.”
One unexpected beneficiary of so many young people looking for work: retailers, who in better times have trouble finding qualified help but are now swamped with applicants with degrees. The portion of working 20- to 24-year-old college graduates in jobs that don’t require a higher education surged from 34.2 percent in 2007 to 39.1 percent in 2010, and among 25- to 29-year-old graduates it rose from 26.1 percent to 29.9 percent, according to an analysis by Paul Harrington and Neeta Fogg, researchers at Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy.
“You’ve got a lot of very well-educated people, and they’re stepping down many, many levels,” says Alex Rebeiz, 44, manager at the Arlington store for Eastern Mountain Sports, which sells outdoor gear. Rebeiz sees applicants with master’s degrees applying for part-time work. Not that he’s complaining. Sales have risen more than 10 percent vs. a year ago, an improvement he largely attributes to the rising caliber of his staff.
Obama, trying to shore up support among young voters, makes regular stops at colleges, where he promotes his efforts to keep student loan interest rates low and highlights the part of the health-care law that lets children stay on family insurance policies until they’re 2+6. Sensing opportunity, Romney and his allies are working to pick off young, disaffected Obama voters or discourage them from going to the polls. Karl Rove recently unveiled Crossroads Generation, a political action committee that will target young people’s fears about the future.
Romney won’t convert Foster, in Virginia, who says that despite her disappointment with the way things are turning out, she still may support Obama. “But I’m pretty liberal,” she says, “I’m not going to vote for Mitt Romney.” Not quite the kind of enthusiastic endorsement Obama inspired four years ago.
A.J. Fofanah, a 22-year-old student at Morgan State University in Baltimore who hopes to get a start in the fashion industry, is more skeptical. An ardent Obama supporter in 2008, he may not cast a ballot this year. “I feel like I didn’t do as much research as I should have,” he says. “I was caught up in the hype of a new president—a new change, as the slogan goes.” He’s sympathetic to the Democrats, but neither of the candidates’ plans for the next four years have won him over. This time, he says, “the change I’m hearing doesn’t excite me at all.”
The bottom line: In 2008, 64 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they’d vote in the presidential election. This year only 47 percent say they will.