Paula S. Fass: Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Get the Youth Vote

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by Paula S. Fass

Paula FassWith her long history of engagement in matters relating to children and families, Hillary Clinton’s failure to inspire young people is notable and, at least initially, puzzling. Compared to Bernie Sanders, who is a youth magnet, she has failed to speak to the Millennial Generation or even the Generation Xers. A little probing, however, may suggest why this is the case.

Hillary Clinton – successful career woman, wife of a young governor and a young president and mother of a dynamic daughter —doesn’t feel their pain. She seems incapable of understanding and sympathizing with the problems of several generations of post 1980s young adults for whom success in careers and in family formation has become extremely challenging. For these people, the global competition for talent and a sexual revolution that Hillary’s generation initiated have complicated career choices and confounded expectations about childbearing and childrearing.

Careers first. Hillary’s generation of women (those who graduated from college in the 1960s and 1970s) which is also my own generation, were challenged to break down barriers in law, medicine, the academy, the police, government, business, etc. We feel very strongly that our careers have been hard fought for and that we won. Young women today do not face the same challenges of breaking through barriers and ceilings, nor do they experience the same sense of victory. Instead, both young women and young men face intense competitive pressures in careers that have been changed profoundly by technology and the fact that their competitors do not always sit alongside them at colleges and professional schools. Doctors fear losing the benefit of their skills to new computer programs and apps, professors to MOOCs, young lawyers and accountants to Indian workshops where poorly paid apprentices can do their work at a much lower price. Women’s growing equality in the acquisition of professional degrees had already intensified competition for highly sought-after positions (in schools and at the work place) in the United States even before the consequences of new technologies kicked in. In a newly globalized economy, the sense of competition has become brutal as has the vision of looming threat to expensively acquired competence.

It is not clear that Hillary, with all her smarts and her experience as a professional woman, understands this. Neither does Bernie Sanders, except that he, at least, offers two possible responses: stop the hemorrhaging of jobs that has resulted from free trade agreements and control Wall Street and the banks which underwrite global competition. While neither of these are likely to solve all the problems they face, young Americans respond to Sander’s firm confidence that something is very wrong with late stage global capitalism and that we need to get a grip on the process which has moved from industrial production initially to highly compensated, well-schooled cognitive-based professional areas today. If high-powered computers can successfully compete with the world’s best chess and “go” players, merely graduating from college is not going to solve the problems faced by most young Americans who can’t get an effective perch in the new economy– and all those young people supporting Sanders know it.

Home life and children. The enormous increase in out-of-wedlock birth over the past two generations in the United States (almost 40% of all children in the U. S. today are born outside of marriage) is not simply a product of the sexual revolution that Hillary Clinton’s generation initiated. Although greater sexual freedom removed the terrible shame once attached to unwed pregnancy, other things also helped to create this phenomenon. For those with less than a college education and minimally marketable skills, an important factor is the loss of regular decent wages. For blue collar families in the past, family life was supported by wages earned by male breadwinners, often supplemented by their wives’ earnings. Those wages have disappeared, at least in part because of the off-shoring of factory work that was given a huge boost during the Bill Clinton presidency. Men who do not have regular jobs often do not marry and their girlfriends do not consider them good marriage prospects. The erosion of once stable family lives has left millions of working women, whose clerical jobs have not as fully evaporated (yet), with children to take care of by themselves, either because they never married or because they are divorced. Their lives are defined by struggling to make-do as they try to find safe and inexpensive childcare, and negotiate more than one job at random hours, while precariously trying to fit together being a good mother and making a living.

Professional women, who have husbands or ex’s, also have it tough but their access to money (and credit) eases some of the worst aspects of this situation. They hire nannies and send their children to excellent daycare and preschools. They can more readily pay for services to make sure that their children receive the preparation they need to succeed in school. College women today and those who have recently graduated from college have observed this process with trepidation. Trained to succeed, accustomed to being evaluated, they are anxious to do it all well, both in their careers and in their childrearing. They have seen the difficulties and costs of this balancing in the working women around them, and in the lives of their mothers and their teachers. They are fully aware that delaying having children can be costly in declining fertility after age 35. They know that new reproductive technologies can be both helpful and disappointing. Young women are puzzled by how to combine fulfilling careers with satisfying home lives; they would like to do both well. But the sense of a noble undertaking, that Hillary’s generation experienced and kept women struggling to succeed, is now faded. The hard work and the frustration remain. Today’s hovering, anxiety-driven mothers are one result of the striving for a completely successful life. Another is the fact that there is a growing tendency for professional women to drop out of their careers in order to devote themselves to raising successful children.

Does successful Hillary, whose daughter was raised in the White House and moved smoothly into Stanford and then on to McKinsey, understand this generation of women’s anxiety about their own careers, their desires to succeed as mothers, and their worries about their children’s futures? I think that she simply does not get it. She does not feel their pain and has no solution for their dilemmas, either in her own experience or in her policies, except for parental leave. And even here she does not see how our society can afford to have this leave paid for. Hillary is very practical and pushes her realism, but in this area she is neither practical nor realistic.

Bernie Sanders may not have solutions either, but he gets the squeeze that young Americans are feeling. His answers may be too pat and repetitive, but at least he makes young people believe that he wants to respond to their very real problems.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Kidnapped and Children of a New World, she recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Fass lives in Berkeley, California. Her latest book is The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.