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April 5 2012

Esquire is Right - and Wrong - about "War Against Youth"

Hadley Heath

Circulating this week among my friend group is Stephen Marche’s War Against Youth, a piece in Esquire magazine.  Marche is right that there’s a game rigged against young people.

He begins, “Nobody ever talks about generational conflict.”  (IWF does: here and here.)

But Marche is wrong in his characterization of the causes and proposed solutions to this problem in at least three ways:

1. Marche believes Conservatives/Republicans are “actively hostile” to the interests of youth.

Marche writes “…The Tea Party's combination of expensive entitlement programs and tax cuts is something entirely different from a traditional political program.”

I’m sorry… what expensive entitlements is the Tea Party pushing for?  I’ve seen them demonized for wanting to cut everything… but blaming them for expensive entitlements… that’s a new one!

Deep down, Marche’s misunderstanding of this situation stems from his narrow view of potential solutions (i.e. the only solution is a government solution).  He mourns the cuts to Americorps and the Career Pathways Innovation fund – government programs meant to employ and train youths – but he rails against private companies for offering internships.

People have mixed feelings on private-sector unpaid internships (even AEI’s Charles Murray suggests we do away with them).  But here are some considerations: Since the recession, many companies have been inundated with résumés.  The applicants are many, but the workers are few.  Some firms use internships as a trial period.  With all the uncertainty stemming from today’s regulatory climate – including onerous and unpredictable health insurance regulations on employers – how can companies possibly gamble on entry level workers without this trial period?  Especially given that, as Marche points out, “45 percent of students showed no improvement in ‘critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing’ after two years of college.”

And yet, after this trial period, many young people are hired.  We could do them a favor by providing employers with the certainty they need to create more paying jobs and expand.  The only people “actively hostile” to the youth jobs market are big-government regulators behind complex legislation like the “Affordable Care Act.”

2. Marche’s definition of “wealth” is narrow.

Marche includes some misleading statistics in the infographics that accompany his article.  Young people (under age 35) had an average net worth of $11,521 in 1984.  Today, that number is a measly $3,662.

Ah yes, but how many 30-year-olds in 1984 had smart phones?

It’s hard to imagine that young people were “better off” in the previous generation.  Regardless of socio-economic class, progress and innovation in the private sector has brought the Millennial generation thousands of comforts that our parents could’ve only dreamt of as kids.

My point is that wealth is more than a dollar sign.  Wealth is value, or utility.

Now, our generation does face unique threats to the pace of progress.  We certainly do carry more debt per person (both private and public) than our parents did at our age. 

It doesn't have to be this way: Marche leaves out the important detail that, rather than watching entitlements like Social Security and Medicare drain our treasury, we could reform them – exactly like some members of Congress are proposing (cough, Paul Ryan, cough) – to save the programs and save money.  Oh well, minor detail… Better to stick with Marche’s false choice between Social Security’s status quo or “starvation,” right?

3. Marche is stuck in upper-middle-class-land.

As is typical for liberals, Marche describes the American dream in a very narrow way: You have to go to college.  You have to get an internship.  You have to get an expensive post-grad degree. What kind of freedom is that?

While college, internships, and graduate degrees all present new opportunities, not every American youth is facing the same battles or even wants to pursue her happiness this way.  Some very hard-working youths are working part time to put themselves through an associate’s degree at their local community college.  Some are getting degrees online.  Some are forgoing higher education entirely. 

How can we best serve all American youth, who have diverse goals, and such diverse pursuits of happiness?

Well, we can start by stopping the upward spiral of college tuition by getting the government out of the student loans business.  Taxpayers who don’t attend college shouldn’t be forced to subsidize the student loans of other citizens, only to the benefit of colleges who can continually raise tuition due to this artificially high demand.  Encouraging people away from productive work toward more school on borrowed money doesn’t help anyone.

Finally, I must express my disappointment with this apparent new effort to make “young people” out to be another victim class.  Everywhere I look I see a new victim class, a new “war on…” somebody. 

Yes, our generation will face challenges in reforming Social Security and Medicare and paying back the national debt.  But curling up in our cohabitated beds and crying about our problems won’t make them go away.  We’re not the first generation of Americans to face hurdles, and we’ve got to take an active, productive role in recovering.

Here’s something upon which Marche and I can agree:

“In hindsight, Obama's 2008 campaign looks like an indulgent fantasy in which the major conflicts in life simply don't exist.”

Yes.  And fool you twice... shame on you.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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