LOS ANGELES -- "Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on 'Lost Decade'" was the lead headline in last Wednesday's New York Times.
The story, by Sabrina Tavernise, got worse, paragraph by paragraph. More than 46 million Americans were living under the government's official poverty line. That was the highest number in the 52 years the Census Bureau has recorded such data.
"This is truly a lost decade," said Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economics professor. "We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we're looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s."
"Median income fell across all working-age categories," reported Tavernise, "but the sharpest drop was among young working Americans, ages 15 to 24, who experienced a decline of 9 percent."
Enter the "Millennials." That's what sociologists are calling Americans born between 1982 and 2003. Those young people are now between the ages of 8 and 29. Trends and other numbers indicate they are going to take the hardest hit so far in these terrible economic times.
This new generation is the pivot of the new book by Morley Winograd of the Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership at the University of Southern California, and Michael Hais, former vice president of Frank N. Magid Associates, the television consultants.
In the book, "Millennial Momentum -- How a New Generation Is Re-Making America," Winograd and Haig make the assumption that this is a critical time of change for America, and these young people are the critical generation for better or worse.
Their thesis is that just about every 80 years, in stressful times, a "civic generation" rises to meet the challenges of the day and turn American history in new directions. The hinges of history they cite are: the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression and World War II. In those crises a more significant and powerful United States emerged from the ashes. And they think that will happen again. Right now, Gen-Xers push aside the members and tenets of older generations. The inevitable disappearance (death) of the elders is the great driving force of change.
Sooner rather than later, the ethnically diverse, socially tolerant, technologically fluent Millennials will make a new nation. Politically, the changing of the guard is inevitable. Next year Millennials will constitute 24 percent of the nation's electorate, compared with 9 percent in 2008 and 36 percent in 2020. Life goes on.
But what will they do with that power? What do they want? I can tell you now, connecting the dots backward, they want what the Silent Generation wanted 40 years ago: a challenging and humane job, their own home and family security. And, more than Winograd and Hais think, I would say there is a chance, small perhaps, that much of their political energy might push to the right, with the affluent Millennials trying to squeeze the last drops of blood and money from the folks at the bottom of their cohort. That is certainly what happened in the "Lost Decade."
Winograd and Hais do not see it that way. Partly because of the rise of Barack Obama, the Millennials have registered and vote almost 2-to-1 Democratic -- and the authors argue that very few people change their political orientation over a lifetime. (The fly in that ointment is that elections are decided by which voters actually go to the polls.)
Winograd and Hais see the Millennials as a pragmatic and civic generation, as opposed to the ideological generations now running the country. They end their book with this:
"To maximize its chances for success, the United States would be well advised to let its next great generation provide the country with the wisdom and guidance to shape America's civic ethos in the Millennial era."