In Box

Leftists for Life

Why the Great Recession's "lost generation" may be lost to the right wing -- forever.

Illustration by Matthew Hollister
Illustration by Matthew Hollister

Congratulations! You’re young, healthy, and in the prime of your life. So what if you’re struggling to find a job in a lousy economy? You can still do anything, right?

Wrong. Millions of young men and women across the United States and Europe are unemployed or underemployed, living at home, and delaying marriage, children, and other fundamental life choices as they seek to make their way through a world still recovering from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. They’ve been called the Great Recession’s "lost generation" — and economists are worried about the long-term effects on their psyches.

As far back as 1979, Harvard economist David T. Ellwood argued that even temporary unemployment among teenagers could leave them "scarred" due to lingering "effects of lost work experience on wages." But now, economists say it could also make them lifelong Democrats (if they’re Americans, anyway).

New research from Paola Giuliano at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Antonio Spilimbergo at the International Monetary Fund looks at how the experience of recessions during the critical, value-forming years of early adulthood can affect people’s political views. Think those crazy kids occupying Wall Street were just going through a phase? Think again. Being exposed to an economic shock between the ages of 17 and 25 can permanently affect people’s ideas about how society should be organized, the researchers argue.

Looking at survey data from 1972 to 2010 from the United States, for example, Giuliano and Spilimbergo found that experiencing a recession as a young adult makes people more likely to believe that governments should be responsible for assisting the poor and that luck plays an important role in success. It also makes them more likely to self-identify as liberal and to vote Democratic. (In fact, an early-life economic shock is four times more likely to influence political behavior than current unemployment.) The effect isn’t limited to the United States either: Using data from worldwide surveys on values, Giuliano and Spilimbergo found that going through a recession makes people more pessimistic and less inclined to believe in a just world.

That’s not simply depressing; it’s bad news for the GOP. Today’s lost generation may feel powerless now, but they’ll be voters for decades to come.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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