Editorial for Socialist Appeal 83 - Today’s youth, the so-called millennials, face a bleak future under capitalism. They carry the highest student debt in history and have entered “adulthood” at a time when housing prices have skyrocketed and the labor market has imploded. More than half of recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed, often in low-wage jobs having nothing to do with their degrees. Nonetheless, they must make monthly payments on an average of $20,000 in student loans.
Since 1970, poverty among 18-to-24-year-olds has increased while mobility and independence has decreased. According to The New York Times, “Young people today are appreciably worse off than those in previous generations. In 1970, for example, 13.9 percent of people ages 18 to 24 were in poverty. In 1990, 15.9 percent were poor; in 2012, the last year of available data, 20.4 percent were poor, or 6.1 million people. That data excludes students living in dorms, as well as most students who live with their parents or receive cash support from them. For young people who are on their own, either living alone or with housemates or spouses, median household income, recently $30,604, is nearly $4,600 less than in 1970 and virtually unchanged since 1990, adjusted for inflation.”
One in five Americans in their 20s and early 30s lives with his or her parents, and 60% rely on them for financial support, compared to one in ten a generation ago. Again, The New York Times explains: “These boomerang kids are not a temporary phenomenon. They appear to be part of a new and permanent life stage . . . From 1945 to around 1978, amid the postwar boom, work life in America was especially benign and predictable. The wage gap between rich and poor shrank to its lowest level on record, and economic growth was widely shared … For most of American history, it was natural for each generation to become richer than the previous one. Now that’s no longer true. These [recent] changes created a new, far less predictable dynamic—some people would do much better than their parents could have ever dreamed; others would fall permanently behind.”
Over the last 40 years, almost all of the economic gains have gone to the top 20% of earners (with the top 1% and .1% taking the highest share of all). So if you can crack the top 20% of earners in a country like the US, life under capitalism may be tolerable. But for 80% of Americans—and an even larger percentage in the rest of the world—the only future capitalism can offer is one of stagnation and declining living standards. For black and Latino youth the prospects are even more grim.
Of course, the media and politics are dominated by those in the top 20%, and the story they sell us is that “anyone can make it.” But that’s simply not the case. Social mobility is at historic lows, which means that the class you are born into is almost certainly the class you will remain in. As they say in Latin America, “all the seats at the table of the rich are taken.”
With no bold lead given by the labor leaders, and no mass labor or socialist party to show the way out, millions of young people are looking for an individual way out. Record numbers continue to go into debt to go to school in the hopes that if they make the necessary sacrifices, they will be one of the lucky ones to “make it.” However, as the data above clearly show, the cards are stacked against them.
Despite everything, 77% of young people believe they can have a better life than their parents. They instinctively know that this is not all the world has to offer. But capitalism can only betray these expectations. When it inevitably does, the youth will begin to move in earnest. All that youthful energy and enthusiasm will be channelled into fighting for a better tomorrow.
With few exceptions, the youth have not made their presence known on the streets of the US since the decline of Occupy. With the Israeli assault on Gaza, and the police murders of Eric Garner on Staten Island in NYC and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that has begun to change. We are witnessing the early beginnings of a revival of the movement of young workers and students. Growing numbers of young people are discovering ideas of socialism and organically understand the need for a fundamental change.
It is common to say that “the youth are the future.” But what kind of future will they have? Under capitalism, the overwhelming majority have little to look forward to. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A better world is possible. The great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky understood the importance of the youth and was filled with unquenchable optimism for the socialist future of humanity. Shortly before he was assassinated in 1940, at a time when World War II was tearing apart the planet, he wrote the following: “Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.” This remains the perspective of the Marxists today. Capitalism has a series of bitter lessons in store for the youth. Nothing will be handed to us on a platter. The only path forward is the path of struggle. It begins with the study of Marxism and with getting organized. Join the IMT and fight for a socialist future!