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More than 1.6 million college graduates are about to emerge into a cutthroat job market, one where last year's graduates are still scrambling to land entry-level positions.
Class of 2010, meet the competition: the Class of 2009. "It's discouraging right now," says 24-year-old Matt Grant, who graduated 10 months ago from Ohio State University with a degree in civil engineering and three internships. He finally has a job—as a banquet waiter at a Clarion Inn near Akron. Grant has applied for more than 100 engineering positions around the country. "It's getting closer to the Class of 2010 [graduating]," Grant says. "I'm starting to worry more."
So is the Obama Administration. The plight of the young and cubicle-less could hurt the Democrats in midterm elections. The youthful voters who helped propel the party to victory in 2006 and 2008 show signs of waning enthusiasm amid their economic travails. "It's definitely tamped down the energy and the excitement and activism that the Obama campaign had sparked among that entry-level age group," says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who advised Howard Dean's 2004 Presidential campaign and is involved in several midterm races. "The problem is they have other things to worry about now."
The party's lead among younger voters already has dropped sharply. While in 2008 Democrats held a 62-percent-to-30-percent advantage over Republicans among "millennials" born after 1980, that 32-point margin shrank by the end of March to 18. Then, 55 percent leaned Democratic, vs. 37 percent Republican, according to polls conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press from October 2009 to March 2010.
The young are also growing alienated by politics in general—and Obama in particular. Interest in voting has dropped faster among the under-30 set than any other age group. In March, only 44 percent of registered voters under 30 said they were "absolutely certain" to vote this year, vs. 78 percent in June 2008, according to Pew polls. Some of the disillusionment extends to the President. "I was inspired by how he was talking about creating new jobs," says Grant, who voted for Obama in 2008 but is unsure how he will vote this fall. "I guess it takes a lot to get things changed."
Despite a slight uptick in hiring this spring, the May 7 jobs report could show an increase in unemployment among twentysomethings as the strengthening economy entices job seekers who had given up back into the labor market.
Unemployment has been stuck at 9.7 percent since January, and for those under 25 it's a considerably higher 18.8 percent. Fewer than 60 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds had jobs in the first quarter, the lowest level since 1964.
The Administration has concluded that the best response is to focus on efforts to revive overall employment and bolster assistance for higher education, since it may be better for some to gain more skills and delay entry into the job market. "What's clear is that there is harm to those who graduate at the wrong time through no fault of their own, which is one reason why it is so important to improve the jobs market," says White House Budget Director Peter Orszag.
The consequences could last far longer than the recession itself. Research by Lisa B. Kahn, a professor of economics at Yale University, found that those who graduated during the peak of the early 1980s recession suffered wage losses compared with those who came into the job market during the decade's boom years. Even 18 years later, the wages of recession graduates continued to lag. An unlucky graduation year cost the average college student more than $100,000 in lost wages over the span of the study.
Democratic officials understand the stakes. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine just announced plans to put $50 million into a voter turnout effort that will place a heavy emphasis on "new voters," many of whom are under 30.
John Podesta, president of the liberal Center for American Progress and an informal adviser to Obama, has been pressing the White House to absorb sidetracked graduates by accelerating plans to expand volunteer service programs like AmeriCorps and VISTA.
The bottom line: Unlike hopeful college graduates who aided Obama's 2008 campaign, grads are busy job hunting and are abandoning Democratic politics.