What Future for U. S. Youth?

by P. T. Robbins

Young students and workers have been slammed by the COVID-19 pandemic. One-third of Generation Z, the oldest of whom are graduating college and entering the job market for the first time, have already lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. Young workers are 35 percent more likely to hold a job vulnerable to COVID-related impacts. These impacts may include job loss, reductions in hours and pay, and an increase in unpaid leave. 

While the government uses coronavirus relief loans to bail out big businesses, many students and workers ages 17 to 24 were ineligible for the $1,200 stimulus check. This is not the first time working people, especially young people, are being forced to pay for economic recessions. While government bailouts allowed big banks and other corporations to recover from the 2007–2008 financial crash and ensuing Great Recession, young people were still struggling to recover even before the pandemic. According to the Washington Post, millennials (approximately 24 – 39 years old) are the “unluckiest generation in U.S. history,” yet these conditions are no accident of history. Decades of austerity measures and neoliberal cuts have slashed public services, safety nets, and job benefits while allowing wages to stagnate. At the same time, young people are being forced to solve the climate crisis that these “profits before people” policies created.

What do we need?

Members of The Socialist Party of England and Wales, co-thinkers of the Independent Socialist Group, have drawn up A Socialist Charter for Young People with the tagline “We won’t sacrifice our future to capitalist crisis!” In it, they outline demands for what young students and workers need in order to secure a “future we can look forward to, not fear.” Although their demands are tailored to conditions in the UK, the need for a fightback against capitalism and for socialism is international, and we can use the ideas they raise as a foundation for our own program.

Pay, jobs, and training. Young people deserve a living wage and a secure job with full benefits! A recent study from UC Berkeley found that 1 in 5 young adults lives in poverty—the highest proportion per age group. It doesn’t have to be like this. A guaranteed minimum income for all unable to work during the pandemic, including an increase in the federal minimum wage to $20/hour, would cut across poverty, both for young adults and for the general population. We need a massive jobs and public works program that focuses on providing secure, living-wage, union jobs in sectors like mass transit, renewable energy, infrastructure, health care, education, and affordable housing. 

Education. Public schools are in crisis: They are systematically being defunded and replaced by private charter schools. These budget cuts mean larger class sizes, especially in low-income areas, while layoffs of teachers and support staff prevent low-income students from getting the extra help they need. Alienated and targeted, these students are disproportionately more likely to end up in the barbaric disciplinary systems of their schools and are less likely to graduate. School districts around the country are using the pandemic as an excuse to slash school budgets—some up to 30 percent. We need fully funded, fully staffed, and fully equipped public schools, and we need a response to the coronavirus that will allow teachers, parents, and students to work together towards safe and effective education solutions!

Instead of improving the quality of higher education, corporatization and bureaucratization of colleges and universities have put skyrocketing tuition costs directly into the pockets of university administrators. Students are forced to borrow increasingly more money, and earlier this year, student loan debt in the U.S. exceeded $1.6 trillion. Students and those paying off student loan debts don’t have to make a payment again until September 30 under current pandemic relief policies. But October 1 will not mark the end of the COVID crisis, let alone all of the economic impacts of this crisis. We need free high-quality education for all and immediate cancelation of all student debt!

Housing and public services. The University of Chicago found that 1 in 10 people between the ages of 18 and 25 experienced some form of homelessness over the course of 2017. In 2019, a survey of 86,000 college students found that 60 percent of students seeking associate degrees and 48 percent of students seeking four-year degrees reported experiencing housing insecurity—which includes homelessness, couch-surfing, or an inability to pay rent. Further, skyrocketing housing markets and the crushing weight of debt leave young people with no path to homeownership, despite the fact that 72 percent of millennials would like to own a home

The same study found that 40 percent of millennials also want to have children, but high cost of living and exorbitant child care costs prevent young people from participating in that part of the “American dream” as well. We need to fight for expanded and high-quality public housing: no one needs to experience housing insecurity when luxury apartments and homes sit empty! We also need universal, affordable, and high-quality child care for families!

Medical debt is disproportionately carried by young people; in 2016, 11 percent of people who incurred medical debt were 27-year-olds in a country where young people can only remain on parental health insurance until age 26. The 2016 National Health Interview Survey found that 75 percent of participants ages 20 to 65 reported being unable to pay their medical bills, whether they were insured or not. We need universal health care that isn’t tied to employment status, fully-funded health care facilities, and guaranteed paid sick leave!

How do we win?

Young people are increasingly radicalizing, fed up with the capitalist system, and are organizing for change. To counteract the effects of the COVID pandemic, past economic recessions, and the devastating effects of austerity policies, young students and workers need to join the fight for better living and working conditions. By organizing as young people, we can lead the fight for a better future. But it will take all of the working class united—not divided by race, gender, or age—to win these demands. 

We need to continue to show up to and take a role in organizing demonstrations, especially around COVID– and Black Lives Matter-related issues. But we also need to harness this energy into channels that can fight for broader socialist policies. Groups of teachers, students, parents, and workers of all sectors need to build an organized fightback against unsafe school reopenings. Where schools have reopened, students should organize walk-outs and sick-outs to resist having to provide their own personal protective equipment (PPE) and face crowded classrooms and unsafe learning conditions every day. College students around the country should continue to organize a fightback against higher education’s profit-driven reopening schemes through tuition strikes and other actions.

Young people need to lead the way in the labor movement. Where labor unions already exist, we should strive to be active members of those unions to push for more progressive demands and the tactics we need to win them. We need to bring political discussions into the workplace and encourage our co-workers to join us in fighting for a better workplace and a better world. We need to work to unionize unorganized workplaces. Finally, we need to put pressure on conservative union leadership who refuse to authorize workplace actions and strikes. The capitalists will not hand us the reforms we need at the negotiating table; we need to walk out and withhold our labor in massive general strikes to force the capitalists to make these reforms. 

Organizing in our workplaces is not enough, however. We also need to spearhead the creation of tenants’ unions, student unions, and coalitions of these and other community organizations if we want to win these demands. As young students and workers, we need to be loud and organized members of these coalitions to push their programs to the left. In these organizations, we need to create sharp and specific demands that can challenge the short-term and small-scale solutions that have been proposed by the two capitalist parties. Ultimately, we will need to build a workers’ party to mount a large-scale fightback against the two parties of big business—a party that will represent the interests of the majority of society and fight for what we need.

Young people in the U.S. have known nothing but economic turmoil, wage stagnation, war, the climate crisis, and neoliberal cuts to public services. We have correctly seen the limitations of capitalism and have taken to the streets, especially in the Black Lives Matter movement. As the youth of the working class, we can take a leading role in not only fighting for these reforms but also in the broader fight against capitalism and for a socialist world. 

Image Credit: Ted Eytan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0