Young, Jobless -- and Politically Powerful?


By Alicia Henry Could Election 2004 produce a perfect storm of discontent by melding the frustrations of young adults with the anxieties of baby boomer parents, who fret about their kids' capacity to begin financially independent lives? If so, voters between 18 and 24 could be a powder keg in the 2004's Presidential race, say some political analysts. Just as young adults and recent college graduates have voiced growing concerns about rising tuition costs and a shrinking job market, their parents also could have those same anxieties very much in mind when casting their own ballots.

A recent survey by Harvard University's Institute of Politics found that three out of four college undergraduates believe it will be difficult to find permanent jobs after graduation. The survey notes that what it dubs "campus kids" are clearly worried about their futures in an economy that appears to be recovering, but without generating new jobs. Perhaps of even greater relevance: They're the grownup children of the soccer moms and office-park dads who proved crucial in the last three Presidential elections.

ONE-TWO PUNCH. "The weakness in the current job market is going to have a significant effect on the way people vote," says former Clinton Administration domestic adviser William Galston, now at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy & Public Policy. If Galston is right, such a trend could well see an increase in the numbers of young and first-time voters exercising their franchise -- even though the generation now coming of age represents something of a baby bust, in terms of sheer numbers. According to Galston, Americans between 18 and 21 represent the smallest slice of the U.S. demographic pie since 18-year-olds were first granted the vote, back in 1972.

Yet, Galston believes this group could exert an influence disproportionate to their numbers, especially if their anxieties and concerns mirror those of their parents. He thinks both President George W. Bush and the Democratic field have largely ignored this potential one-two punch.

Not everyone thinks young people will flex their political muscles, however. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says people in this age group tend not to vote because, being away at college or out chasing jobs, they lack long-term permanent addresses and are less likely to be registered. More to the point, he notes many potential young voters are simply uninterested in the political process, if not activately alienated by it. "Turnout [among this group] is always miserable," he says, predicting that even with concerns about the economy paramount, "only a tiny percentage will show up."

FEW JOBS, BAD JOBS. Yet, Sabato also points out that with the job market so bad, more students may end up working on Presidential campaigns next year, even if they don't actually register to vote. "When there's an absence of available jobs in the job market, then there's an uprise in political activity," he says. The reason: Volunteer campaign work makes a résumé look better and can produce a job offer down the road.

Just as parents influence many of the decisions their children make, the fact that tough times have obliged increasing numbers of young adults to remain in the family nest also may have an impact on the way parents perceive the Presidential hopefuls and their policies. The frustration of seeing their children unable to find jobs -- or the knowledge that they have taken ones for which their expensive educations make them overqualified -- could play a major role in determining which lever baby boomers pull next November.

If the economy does start to pick up steam, such a fusion of generational interests likely will fizzle. But should the job market fail to revive by graduation time next spring, out-of-work college grads might be standing in Election Day voting lines beside their equally frustrated parents. Henry, a journalism major at Boston University, was an intern in the magazine's Washington bureau


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