AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Perhaps more than any other prominent issue today, Joe Biden’s recent action on student loan “forgiveness” captures the generational and class divides that have grown up in the United States over the last twenty-five years. The student debt saga is the ultimate manifestation of the resentment and bitterness of one group in particular: millennials. Understanding modern American politics requires trying to understand the psychology of this lost generation—as strange and even entitled as it may seem.
Since Biden announced the policy earlier this month, one of the most striking aspects of the debate has been that advocates of the policy do not primarily argue that debt relief is good for the economy, or that debt is preventing millions from starting families, buying homes, or being able to contribute to society. Instead, particularly in the case of so many disaffected millennials, their rhetoric is defined by a tone of entitlement and betrayal: they lament that those in debt “deserve” relief and were “exploited” and “tricked” into taking out loans, only later finding themselves trapped.
It is relatively easy for conservatives to rebut these claims of victimhood with arguments for individual responsibility – perhaps too easy. As with the late Roman Republic, whether or not those in debt willingly entered into the contracts is turning out to be far less important than that a large proportion of the population is in debt they believe was accrued under false pretenses. That is a political and cultural, not merely an economic and legal, problem.
A closer look at these arguments, regardless of their actual merit, is revealing. Clearly, it is not only conservatives who believe that higher education is failing in its mission. A large proportion of liberals, too, seem to be fully aware that the product they were talked into purchasing is not the one they received. Among many young people, calls for debt relief are thus often in reality calls for a “refund.”
These calls are particularly loud among millennials. There are generations that are considered more self-indulgent (Boomers), more self-sacrificing (the “Greatest”), and more mentally adrift (Generation Z), but few are as bitter as millennials. These are the activists and staffers who are driving the modern Democrat Party.
The oldest millennials grew up in the 1990s, when their first experience of politics was Bill Clinton promising a bridge to the 21st century, and everything was “dot com.” Most importantly, it was a time when everything was possible. The message, in both politics and economics, was that, while there might be bumps along the road, the world was on an upward trajectory that would continue forever. True, companies of millennials’ youth such as Sega, Netscape, Napster, and Myspace all failed, but their failure led to their replacement with better things. Governments made mistakes, but the economy kept growing. Even 9/11 and Iraq took time to undermine this vision.
This was the culture in which millennials entered college. The key message for them in the universities was that there was all the time in the world. “Take a year off abroad to go hiking in New Zealand!” “Start a blog!” “Work at a summer camp!” Colleges leaned into this, pushing the idea of “personal enrichment.” Paid internships, especially in the corporate sector, were often openly discouraged, with “social service” requirements existing as sort of proto-ESG obligation for students. The premise was that there was plenty of time to find a job in the final months of senior year, even with no relevant work experience, and that this would make you a more attractive candidate anyway.
Equally, specialization was discouraged. Colleges often actively capped the number of courses students could take in their majors, ostensibly in order to widen student perspectives. In reality, many would argue, this was for colleges to cut costs. This was, of course, fine; if you studied astronomy or gender theory with a minor in literature, you could apply for a finance job no problem. Basic skills went by the wayside, even things such as figuring out how to manage health insurance when it was covered by schools.
Of course, the 2008 financial crisis was a blow to a subset of millennials, crippling them, but that some millennials were hit hard by those events does not detract from the fact that virtually all of them were poorly served by the culture in which they reached adulthood. Having been told “career services” could place them at firms in the final months of senior year, many had no “Plan B” when that failed and they found themselves adrift after college.
It is no coincidence that the major demand millennials had of Barack Obama was the perceived promise that he would turn the entire country into what was effectively a college environment. Obamacare would bring back their student health plans which covered everything with no paperwork, which is what Obama essentially did by allowing them to remain on their parents’ plans until they were 26. He was expected to somehow fix the economy for millennials so that jobs no longer required specific skill sets, and workplaces were not allowed to make demands of them.
In short, this generation demanded the impossible of Obama, and when he gave up in frustration during his final years, the efforts of his millennial staffers in 2014-2016 merely helped jump-start the current culture wars in education and the corporate sector. With Obama’s failure, they seized on a new scapegoat. Obama had been unable to succeed because of “institutions” such as the Supreme Court. But if only Hillary could win, they could take over the Supreme Court and a new, liberal Court would declare that everything they had enjoyed at college and been promised as teenagers was in fact guaranteed by the Constitution.
That is why Hillary’s defeat was so crushing to this generation – it cost them the Court with the nominations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and finally Amy Coney Barrett, who replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who had somehow become a cult figure by her explicit pandering to millennial culture in her final years (an indignity which it seems was forced on her by her younger press advisers).
The result has been anger and demands from millennials that Biden somehow deliver on what they feel they were promised, which to them is nothing less than what they “deserve.” Debt forgiveness is merely one of these demands, and a minimum expectation. They were promised jobs, success, and status by colleges, encouraged to make choices which crippled them for at least a decade and may well cripple many for life. Whether they were knocked off the hamster wheel (the too-easy 2008 financial crisis explanation) or they were persuaded to jump is beside the point. They are off it, and they feel they were never taught how to properly ride it, much less how to get back on. The least they want is their money back. The most is, well, whatever they can get – houses, jobs, compensation, and power for starters. Resentful of their parents and any who succeeded where they did not, many millennials feel entitled to a portion of others’ success.
Democratic politicians have long been aware of the demands of this constituency, but their efforts to ride the wave of disaffection have failed, largely because Democrats have mistaken it for an ideological conviction. Bernie Sanders and then Elizabeth Warren mistook resentment, bitterness, and despair for an ideological commitment to socialism. Joe Biden, meanwhile, believes millennials can be bought for a pittance.
In a way, Biden is closer to the truth. Millennials did not want reform, which would save others from their fate, as Warren and Sanders believed. If anything, the success of a better-informed Generation Z which is turning to technical, programming, and business degrees is a source of resentment at best, and a further threat to their prospects at worst. What liberal millennials want is “reparations” and a restoration of their proper role in society, namely in the economy and politics, which they believe has been denied them. They sense an effort to bypass them in politics and transition from Generation X to Generation Z, much as is happening in the private sector. Biden’s decision to forgive $10k in student loans was a victory for this group not because the money mattered (it was not much in the grand scheme of things) but because it was taken from everyone else.
Biden’s offering will not, however, satisfy them. Having tasted the ability to extract reparations from politicians, they will escalate to demanding nothing less than their “due,” and Democrats will recognize too late that this can only come at the expense of everyone else in society. That is already evident in the culture wars, where “wokeness” is an effort by millennials to assert their power over their older rivals, and the transgender issue increasingly a power struggle between them and Generation Z. Biden, with his student loan forgiveness scheme, has added an economic dimension to the Culture War which is now generational, and it is one which the Democrats cannot win. Not unless there is a fundamental effort to address the wider concerns of this lost generation.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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