The War against the Young

by Victor Davis Hanson
Is Obama building a conservative youth movement?

It is popular wisdom that President Obama’s progressive social agenda is predicated on widespread support from the younger, hip generation. Certainly, concerns like gay marriage, marijuana legalization, abortion, the DREAM Act, gun control, women in combat, and blocking gas and oil exploration and pipeline transportation all get a lot of play on campuses and in popular culture. And these wedge issues supposedly represent the future direction of the country — a wise agenda for liberals eager to cement a majority constituency for decades to come.

But aside from the common-sense recognition that people become more conservative as they age and mature — and start paying taxes, and become financially responsible for their own children’s future — there is just as much likelihood that Barack Obama may inadvertently be building a conservative youth movement. Indeed, the new liberalism in all its economic manifestations is reactionary and anti-youth to the core. The administration seems aware of the potential paradoxes in this reverse “What’s the matter with Kansas?” syndrome of young people voting against their economic interests. Thus follows the constant courting of the hip and cool Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Lena Dunham, Occupy Wall Streeters, and others who blend pop culture, sex, youth, energy, and fad — almost anything to avoid the truth that today’s teenagers are starting out each owing a lifetime share of the national debt amounting to more than three-quarters of a million dollars. Those who ran up the debt enjoyed the borrowing, but won’t be around to pay back their proverbial fair share.

University tuition has soared well beyond the rate of inflation, increases brought about by an inexcusable surge in administrative staffs, the reduction in teaching loads over the last few decades, the costs of subsidizing overly specialized and esoteric research, all sorts of costly new race/class/gender explorations, and a general expansion of non-teaching support staffs. Justification of such escalating costs was always based on the truism that college degrees represented a wise lifetime investment that ensured increased salary and better job security. That may still be true — in the long run — but bleak immediate employment prospects for those under 25, along with ballooning college loans, will eventually prompt a reexamination of such received wisdom. When academics at traditional universities trash private tech schools and on-line colleges, their criticism is not so much pedagogical as self-interested.

At some point, the huge campus speaking fees given a Michael Moore or a John Edwards, the off-topic rants of the English professor, and the proliferation of x-studies degrees that impart neither expertise nor marketability will be rethought by young consumers in terms of years of paying back high-interest student loans for brands that were not applicable to most employment.

Nearly every week, I receive a letter from a former student seeking help in finding a job. The common theme is a sense that something in their education went terribly wrong. Most fear that their present indebtedness is unsustainable and that their degrees are almost superfluous in today’s economy. There is also a vague resentment that no one in the self-interested university honestly apprised them of the odds stacked against them. It was about ten years ago when a student wrote me to complain that her professor’s skipping one of her classes had cost the student, in pro-rated terms, over $150. I wrote back to remind her to tally as well the interest charges on her tuition debt. Academics call such calculations consumerism, but students see what has happened to them as consumer fraud.

Apart from the elite of the Ivy League, most indebted students no longer look back at their professors and administrators as paragons of virtue or avatars of social change; instead, they see them as part of an establishment that sold them a bill of goods, one more interested in getting ever more customers than in finding jobs for those who bought their product on credit. The latest job figures show that among 20-to-24-year-olds, unemployment has risen (alone among various age cohorts) to 13.3 percent. For those in their prime working years (e.g., 25 to 34) unemployment is still high, at 7.4 percent. National debt per person has soared to over $53,000, a $20,000 surge in just the first 50 months of the Obama presidency. Most of the borrowing — both the Obama administration’s new borrowing and the older borrowing for payouts to those receiving pensions, Medicare, and Social Security — was the property of the Baby Boomer cohorts.

Those over 50, who mostly run the nation, have popularized something called “internship,” a non-paid or low-paid apprenticeship that might or might not eventually lead to employment, but that typically does not even pay the room and board of the worker in question. Fifty years ago such “jobs” would have been the source of labor unrest, as thousands hit the streets to argue that they were little more than indentured serfs, and their employers virtual feudal lords. Yet few complain today because these interns are largely middle class, and they have been told that obedience and subservience are just the sorts of traits that employers appreciate. In today’s liberal legal universe, a six-figure-salaried senior female executive can sue for vast sums over a sexist remark (something akin to the president’s recent quip that California’s attorney general was the best-looking such officeholder in the nation), while a penniless student or recent graduate who labors for free has no legal recourse.

To a generation saddled with college debt and facing bleak job prospects, the current Democratic hysteria over any sensible reform of Social Security and Medicare increasingly sounds just as surreal. In fact, the only question left about reforming entitlements is not if, but when: whether those in their forties and fifties will share the pain of cutting back, or whether the escalating burdens of keeping the system solvent will fall entirely on a younger generation that will have bigger debts and smaller incomes.

Tomorrow’s public employee is not likely to receive a generous defined-benefit retirement plan — but will still hear whining from his far-better-compensated superiors as to how unfair it is to question whether their own compensation is sustainable. And far fewer in the future will so easily land a government job at all: In California the unsustainable cost of the public work force is due not to overstaffing, but to too few younger taxpayers to meet the state’s existing obligations, given the lucrative compensation and retirement packages of a select elder few, who somehow believe that their own privilege is proof of their egalitarianism. Forgotten in the national acrimony over unfunded defined-benefit retirement plans for public employees is that the divide is not public versus private sector, or left versus right, but older versus younger. For the public unions the implicit message is something like the following: Keep borrowing to fund our generation’s unsustainable pensions and, in turn, we may concede that the next generation will never receive something so bankrupting to the public purse.

The soon-to-be-$17-trillion debt — run up largely by the Baby Boomer generation — will lead to decades of budget cutting, inflation, and higher taxes. A decade from now, as 30-somethings try to buy a home and raise children while they are still paying off their student loans, they may wonder why the national burden of repaying the debts of the better-off falls largely upon themselves. Indeed, a legacy of the Baby Boomer generation is the idea that it is natural for younger people to begin life with huge loans — not for a house or a car, but for an education of dubious market value.

The offspring of well-connected journalists, politicians, academics, professionals, and celebrities assure us in their documentaries and op-eds, and through their parents’ voices, that conservatives have lost the war for America’s youth. They certainly have, at least for a while, at in-the-news, private liberal-arts campuses. But for the vast majority of the state-schooled who have no such connections, little if any expectation of an inheritance, and lots of accumulated debt, there is nothing liberal about the values inherent in the present economy.

Given a choice between gay marriage, legalization of pot, and the banning of so-called assault rifles on the one hand, and, on the other, a good job with lower taxes, most young people will quietly prefer the latter. For that reason, conservatives should not outbid liberals to appear cool to new voters, but simply explain that a fair economy for all generations is no longer on the liberal agenda.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals will appear in May from Bloomsbury Books.

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