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Who Are the Millennials?: Bill Moyers Interview With Heather McGhee

Who Are the Millennials?: Bill Moyers Interview With Heather McGhee

Who Are the Millennials Bill Moyers Interview With Heather McGhee

Heather McGhee. (Photo: Moyers & Co.)

While Republicans are still fighting the culture wars primary by primary, and caucus by caucus, President Obama is campaigning rather feverishly to win back the votes of the Millennials. Who are they? Well, the Millennials are the generation of young Americans born roughly between the years of 1978 and 2000. They are coming now to political maturity.

Two-thirds of Millennials voted for Obama in 2008, but a new Harvard study shows that in the last two years his approval rating among them has dropped 12 points. That's enough to decide a close election in November. And that may be why the President recently threatened to cut federal aid to schools that, quote, “jack up tuition.” Many of the Millennials are coming out of college with big loans to repay.

Yet another study describes their enthusiasm for him as “substantially depleted” so his reelection campaign has been wooing them recently through what Obama himself calls this “new fangled” thing, social media.

This week, we’re going to talk with one the Millennials’ most thoughtful advocates. Her name is Heather McGhee. Listen.

HEATHER McGHEE: I turned 30 last year which puts me at the very start of the Millennial generation. And we are known for our sense of entrepreneurship, our volunteerism our tolerance of diversity and for being the first generation in American history to not do better than their parents. And that was clear before the Wall Street banks crashed the economy and left our generation to graduate into the worst job market since the Great Depression.

BILL MOYERS: As we’ve been reporting in our series on winner-take-all politics, the Millennials grew up in the years when crony capitalists and powerful officials in Washington rewrote the rules of the economic game to favor the relative few at the top over everyone else. That collusion brought devastating results, from the financial crash four years ago, to the greatest inequality in America since the great depression of the 1930’s. Our economy stopped working for everyday Americans.

So this generation of young people faces a stacked deck. They will find it tough to make their way to the middle class. And as you heard Heather McGhee say, Millennials are the first generation not-likely to do better than the one that came before them.

There are 80 plus million of them, 60 percent are white, 14 percent black, 19 percent Latino, five percent Asian, and a smattering of others. Here is something of what they’re up against:

Unemployment among our youngest adults is almost twice the national average. 25 to 34 year-old male high school graduates are earning 25 percent less than they earned in 1980. Almost 40 percent of young adults say their personal debt increased in the last four years, a lot of that directly related to student loans.

Back in 1980, college tuition averaged three thousand dollars, adjusted for inflation. Today that average has almost tripled.

Back then, pell grants covered more than two-thirds of the cost for low income students. Today it’s down to just over one-third. And those who graduate are in debt an average of 25 thousand dollars.

And yet, despite the dire statistics, almost 80 percent of young people say they still believe in the American dream. That’s true across race and ethnicity. Hope, fortunately, springs eternal.

Heather McGhee graduated from Yale and the law school of the University of California at Berkeley. She now runs the Washington office of the research and advocacy group D?mos. She was active in fighting for financial reform in Congress after the crash of '08 and for new measures to protect consumers.

Heather McGhee, welcome.

Heather McGhee on the Millennial Generation from on Vimeo.

HEATHER McGHEE: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: You know, the facts and figures paint a very dismal picture of your generation. But let me ask you this. Is it something of a myth, this upward mobility in American life? Because I could take you to the hollows of West Virginia, to the back streets of our big cities, to small towns throughout the country, where poor kids never got up and out.

HEATHER McGHEE: Absolutely. I mean, I think it's a myth that every kid is going to have that opportunity. And that's one of the great myths that's been quite destructive, actually, to our willingness as a country to make sure that there are those ladders of opportunity in place, through policies like universal education, child care, and early child care and development.

But the truth has been that over the course of our history, every generation as a whole has done better financially. And in fact, up until a few generations ago, has been able to do better financially by working even less, by being more productive and having more time for home life and for civic life.

BILL MOYERS: You know, other generations have faced severe problems. They've experienced depression, recession, war. What makes this different?

HEATHER McGHEE: I think what's different about this generation is that all of the external changes that happened, globalization, technological change, the information age. All of that happened, and yet it happened at a time when we lost our social contract. So America could have weathered all of the economic storms that happened over the course of our lifetimes in a much better way that did not decimate the middle class, if we had a social contract in this country. If we had not, at the same time, decided that, in fact, the economy would work better if everybody was on their own. So that's what's different.

BILL MOYERS: Well, do you and your peers get together and say, 'What hit us?'

HEATHER McGHEE: Most of my friends, who are not political and don't have an economics background, who are starting out their lives right now, having children, getting a house don’t even think about the fact that these are common problems that could have public solutions. They don't think there could be financial aid for childcare. They don't think that health care could be portable and go with them and be guaranteed.

They don't think that there could be a pension that is more solid and durable than a 401(k). That's actually been sort of the most pernicious effect of the Reagan revolution is to take the horizon of public policy solutions that could really help people sort of off the radar entirely.

BILL MOYERS: But if your peers, don't think they have a problem, do they have a problem?

HEATHER McGHEE: They know that they have the problems. They just don't know that there could be public solutions.

I think that's one of the major projects that we have to do is really to create a generational comparison. Where we say, for example, 'My generation— my grandparents were able to go to college, go to higher education, have a middle class life, save for the future, retire comfortably because of public investments that were made, like the G.I. Bill, because of the federal highway system, because of the retirement system that labor and union jobs were able to provide.'

BILL MOYERS: How did you get a start? What were your— who were your parents? What did they do?

HEATHER McGHEE: I'm the descendent of American slaves. I'm from the South — Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana. My grandparents and great-grandparents moved up to work in the steel mills of Chicago.

My grandmother and grandfather both had public sector jobs at a time when there was rampant discrimination in the private sector. They became, you know, leaders in the police force in Chicago, a social worker in the Chicago public schools. And they were able to retire comfortably. And they were able to help my parents out. And my parents were able, in turn, to help me out. But the idea that I'm going to be able to do that for my children, given the amount of debt that I have is something that I think I've just had to let go of.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that's what can happen in the public sector. That the public sector over the last 50 years has created a very large middle class for people who would otherwise never have gotten into it. And now with the assault on public unions and public sector, that ladder's being taken down, right?

HEATHER McGHEE: Absolutely. It's been so shocking to see the demonization of public servants. It's really part of this 40-year attack on the public. And I think the fact that we're seeing right now that teachers, public janitors, school workers, bus drivers, cops, firefighters are the new welfare queens in our public life.

I mean, really they are. I mean, if you think about the stereotype that's being trafficked right now. They're talking about these lazy, you know, bloated pensions that are just, you know, cheating the system. I mean, that's the welfare queens of the 1980s. And what has been— what's the same between the welfare queen and this image of the postal worker who doesn't really deserve the benefits they're getting? These old shop worn stereotypes of race and gender.

BILL MOYERS: Does it seem to you that inequality is sort of the bequest your generation has been handed.

HEATHER McGHEE: Absolutely. I mean, our generation is, you know, the most diverse generation in American history. Half of young people under 18 are children of color. But we are also the generation that is experiencing this record inequality, inequality in our economy and inequality in our democracy.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean inequality in democracy?

HEATHER McGHEE: Well, let's take, for example, the fact that since I was born, there's an entirely new industry that didn't used to exist. That of corporate lobbyists, for which there are now 24 for every member of congress.

I mean, if you think about who people in congress spend their time with, who they listen to, who they spend one out of every three minutes that they're in office fundraising around, it is people in the top one percent. It is their lobbyists. It is the corporate CEOs. And so much of the policy decisions, whether they are the decision to keep the minimum wage low.

I mean, if we— the minimum wage was at its peak in 1968 and has lost nearly half of its purchasing power. I mean, just think of that one policy decision that is a number one target for the Chamber of Commerce, year after year, to make sure that the minimum wage stays low. That absolutely benefits people who are invested in big corporations and the executives of big corporations. But the American worker has seen their buying power erode and erode.

BILL MOYERS: So is this what you meant in that speech when you said that what has happened to your generation was the consequence of a social experiment? Is that what you mean?

HEATHER McGHEE: Yeah, it's been a really grand experiment that has— in, sort of, neo-liberal economics, the trickle-down experiment. The experiment that said that, in fact, the best way that we can shape our economy is to make sure that the most gains are amassed and kept at the very top. And then that somehow those would trickle down.

That's been an experiment. It's been— it was a theory that was tested. My generation were the guinea pigs. And that experiment has absolutely failed if the aim was to produce greater prosperity for America. That means American people. If the aim was to actually stop at the top and just create greater corporate profits and greater G.D.P. growth, then it's been a success. But I think most Americans would not have bought in to that kind of experiment.

BILL MOYERS: I read just the other day that only 29 percent of Americans have college degrees. Is college still a way up and out?

HEATHER McGHEE: It is. And you would think— I mean, this is one of those great ironies. At the same time that we had the globalization, the transfer from the industrial age to the information age, and so the premium on higher education became so high. At the same time that we decided to reorder our economy so that those with information and with knowledge would be able to gallop ahead, we also made it less affordable and more difficult for people to get that new golden ticket to a middle class life.

It doesn't make any sense. At around that same time, around when I was born, we shifted our federal support for higher education. It used to be the majority of it was grants, grants like the G.I. Bill that put my grandparents to college, grants like my parents had, to loans, which is what the majority of my generation is now taking on in order to basically pay government and the banks for the privilege of having a middle class life.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, what does it say that many of you have to pay Wall Street to go to college today?

HEATHER McGHEE: It's amazing, isn't it? And not only do we have to do that, but particularly with these private loans, which are just galloping, galloping away, in terms of how quickly they're becoming a share of the market, it's like 18 percent interest on some of these private loans. It's like putting your $10,000 tuition on a high-interest credit card.

And if you think about that, if you think about the fact that the next generation has to pay an 18 percent interest rate to get a college education, whereas the very banks and financial companies that they're paying that interest to are getting basically a zero interest loan from the government every day, it's shocking.

BILL MOYERS: We have a video clip of a young man who's speaking at a rally objecting to tuition increases. Let's take a look at it.

PROTESTER: Me myself, I’m in debt $70,000 and when do I expect to be free of this? Possibly never. I actually got a letter from Sallie Mae, saying that if I don’t start paying today, $900 a month, they are going to have more aggressive attempts at collecting my debt […] And so I refuse to pay this student debt, for this ball and chain that will follow me the rest of my life. And so I’m going to burn this right here and now.

BILL MOYERS: How do you respond to that?

HEATHER McGHEE: Honestly, it really does breaks my heart, Bill. If you think about what young people are facing when they know that they have to play by the rules, go to college, get a good education. And yet, they know that the price of that is going to be tens of thousands of dollars of debt on the other end, what options are young people supposed to have? I really don't think that we can say as a country that we are a middle class nation, that we care about recreating a middle class for the future generation, and have an entire generation indebted. And have so much money diverted from more productive uses in the economy simply to pay off loans from a really flawed financial aid system.

To read more articles by Moyers & Co., click here.

BILL MOYERS: He quoted a letter from Sallie Mae. For the benefit of my audience, who's Sallie Mae?

HEATHER McGHEE: Sallie Mae, other than being one of the most profligate contributors to Washington and one of the biggest lobbies, is a massive financial company that is, their entire business model is on student loans, private and federally subsidized.

BILL MOYERS: As you know, the Obama Administration tried to do something to clean up that student loan business, and got a piece of legislation through that was promising. But then lobbyists from the industry, including many who belong to the Democratic Party swarmed all over it, and have, in effect, throttled it. What does that say to you?

HEATHER McGHEE: It says that the financial industry is an equal opportunity employer of Congress people, unfortunately. We've really seen an incredible explosion in the amount of financial contributions from the financial sector, including Sallie Mae, Wall Street banks, real estate, insurance over just the period of my lifetime. And the result has been that any time there are any kinds of steps forward, there's always a desire to sort of erode the progress.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you're sympathetic to that young man and to all of them like him. But do you think refusing to pay is a solution?

HEATHER McGHEE: You know, I think the right solution would be for us to undo what Sallie Mae and other lenders got slipped into that terrible 2005 bankruptcy bill. Which is that private student loans and student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. I mean, think about it, bankruptcy, which, you know, huge, multi-billion dollar corporations are— seem to be filing every day and move on, just as if nothing happened.

And yet, regular, middle class families, the average American family, the two most important loans in their life, the two most onerous loans in their life, for education and for their primary residence, they can't be relieved of in bankruptcy. Our bankruptcy code says to the American people, “You don't have any second chance when it comes to those two major primary loans.” We're just making people give up so early on, because it's impossible to get out from under debt like that.

BILL MOYERS: What's the answer to the high cost of college and the loans that kids have to take out?

HEATHER McGHEE: Yeah. We need to fundamentally shift back to a system of grants, not loans. I mean, we cannot indenture a generation just to pay for the ticket to the middle— to a middle class life. But we also need to do something for people who are not going to get bachelor's degrees, which are still— it's not the majority of young people who have a college degree.

So I think we need to raise the wage floor. We absolutely have to get back to a place of embracing unions in this country. And we have—


HEATHER McGHEE: Because unions created the middle class in this country. Because the jobs that were the steelworker jobs that so many of the people in my family had weren't good jobs. They were made into good jobs, because the people who were working those jobs had a voice on the shop floor, and had some power when it came to setting their wages. Which makes all of the sense in the world. That the people baking the pie should be the ones who get to have a decent slice of it.

BILL MOYERS: What are the racial dimensions of this? I just read the other day that 30 percent of all young African Americans below 24 are out of work?

HEATHER McGHEE: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that this is what I think is, in a way, the great unspoken disaster of our lifetime. When we saw the rapid de-industrialization of our cities, where we saw the jobs that used to be able to create decent working and middle class lifestyles for people who went to work every day, but didn't have a college degree. When we had that deindustrialization from the inner cities, who greatly, greatly was damaged by that economic policy, essentially, were particularly people who were trapped in inner cities.

And that generally speaking throughout our history, people as economic flows have changed, people have been free to move and follow jobs. But because race is so pernicious, because segregation is still very real, because of the redlining by the F.H.A. that went straight in through the 1980s, we did not see that flow. And then we haven't seen the kind of commitment to evening out the pockets of privation in our country. That we need to see in order for us to have a strong middle class that's diverse and that looks like America.

BILL MOYERS: How do you have a new social contract if we don't have a sense of community?

HEATHER McGHEE: I think that is the great question of our time. Because if you look at this sort of hostility and anxiety around public solutions, at its root, it's anxiety around who the public is. And I think that that's happened, because of the real explosion in diversity.

But I think it's something that there is an answer to. It takes leadership. I mean, you have to think about the same system that allows people based on their physical appearance to be valued so differently, to create this hierarchy, is at its root, in terms of cognitively, the same system that allows, for example, the CEO of Walmart, who makes about $16,000 an hour. Whereas his coworker, the associate on the shop floor, makes about seven dollars an hour. And then the woman or man in Malaysia or India, who actually is making the product on the shelves makes pennies an hour.

And yet, they're all in the same enterprise. You have to think about what that says to us as people, when we value the labor of three people who are in the same enterprise, essentially, so differently. I mean, when you and I walk into a store and we see a phone on the shelves. And one is $30 and one is $300, what do we decide about the more expensive one? That it's better.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, automatically, right?

HEATHER McGHEE: Automatically.

BILL MOYERS: Something about it.

HEATHER McGHEE: Exactly. If it's more expensive, it's better. And the logic of applying that same logic to human beings, which we do all the time in this free market with no fundamental values of human dignity is really dangerous. But it's the same kind of logic that leads us to have racial hierarchies and gender hierarchies, as well.

BILL MOYERS: Which leads me to a political question. In 2008, millennial, your generation, voted for Obama by a 34 point margin compared to a nine-point margin, four years earlier, for John Kerry. I mean, they came out — you came out, your generation, and were a decisive, if not the decisive factor in Obama's margin. Will your generation come out for Obama again?

HEATHER McGHEE: I think it's a really difficult question. I think the Millennial generation still is showing preferences for Democratic policies for Democratic values and ideals and for Democratic candidates over Republican candidates. But you have to realize that just like with all other kinds of voters, young voters are voting on the economy.

And as the D?mos report “The State of Young America” has shown, this generation, my generation is really feeling the brunt of the recession that capped off 30 years of widening economic inequality and insecurity. And so young people can't say that they're better off financially than they were four years ago. I really believe that given the levels of unemployment in the young adult generation, the president needs to call for— and I understand it would be difficult to pass through Congress.

But on the campaign trail, he needs to call for a WPA style, generational jobs program all across this country. And it would be a transformational generational experience. It would be something that would expose people to different Americans from different walks of life. But it would also be something that would say, finally, for once and for all, 'Yes, your American Government is on your side, young people. We're not always going to leave you to the mercy of the banks and selfish employers and the vagaries of the so-called 'free market. We're going to say that your future matters to us as a country.'

BILL MOYERS: You're calling for more and more government help. You just asked Obama to take a more aggressive position with using the government to put people to work. You're up against, of course, the predisposition of people out across the country that, 'I don't want to pay taxes to those folks who haven't been spending it well, fighting wars, passing the cost on. Extending benefits to Wall Street, bailing out the banks. I don't want to support government anymore.'

HEATHER McGHEE: Absolutely. I mean I think that in order for us as Americans, who want to see public solutions to our common problems, to really achieve what we want to achieve, we are going to have to clean up Washington first. It is absolutely important. For example, why would the American people trust Washington to do what's right when they know that so much of their energy is focused on rewarding the people who brought them to the party, which is the wealthiest people in the country and the organized corporate elite?

And so we've got to clean up the money in politics problem. And it's time to take that incredibly personal issue of your own personal finances and make them political.

BILL MOYERS: Doing what?

HEATHER McGHEE: I think we need to stay politically involved on policy issues. We need to, as a generation, really be the generation that calls for and holds leaders accountable for cleaning up Washington, for addressing the political inequality that is perpetuating economic inequality. We need to become a very politically engaged generation. We need to run for office, debt be damned.

BILL MOYERS: Heather McGhee, I’ve enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for joining me.

HEATHER McGHEE: Thank you so much for having me, Bill.

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