It was during Sunday brunch at an upscale restaurant last week that I realized why this country's economic problems are not translating into progressive political reform.
Sharing the meal with me were a close friend and her two 20-something nieces. These lovely, poised young women, just out of college and starting their careers, are trying to figure out how to make a living while having a life.
One who works in marketing and public relations was already feeling the strain of having only two weeks off per year. She described meeting a young man from Sweden who gets five weeks of vacation. With excitement tinged with envy, she noted that such generous leave is required there.
Ah, the first hints of worker consciousness were cracking through the thick wall of political apathy that they and their friends wear as easily as TOMS. But the dots don't get connected. When I pressed, it became clear that they don't see politics playing a central role in their lives. Though socially liberal, it isn't clear whether they will vote, and if so, for which politician or party.
It used to be that pocketbook issues motivated voters. President Barack Obama's popularity slide can be blamed on the economy's stubbornly high unemployment rate and the erosion of wages, and he may pay dearly come election time. But anger at Obama is misplaced. Americans have themselves to blame for their weakening economic position. We're a wealthy country. Workers should demand a larger share of the wealth they create.
For instance, the Swedish model of work-life balance is not unusual. Countries throughout Europe guarantee their workers at least 20 days paid leave. In France and Finland, workers enjoy 30 days of legally mandated time off. Add in paid vacations and it's 40 and 44 days, respectively. The outlier is the United States with no mandated time off.
Meanwhile, median household income is falling. Median wages for men are now at 1970-era levels. Jobs pay so badly — when they can be found — that younger people are finding it increasingly impossible to start an independent life. Between 2007 and 2011, 25- to 34-year-olds saw a 25 percent increase in their number living at home.
Compare this to countries like Denmark, which has far less income inequality than the United States and a government that sees its core duty as making sure every job is a good job. There, only 8 percent of workers are in low-wage jobs, compared with estimates upward of 33 percent in the United States, even as Denmark's unemployment rate is far below our 9.1 percent, according the reporting website Remapping Debate.
In Denmark, even people who clean hotel rooms have a secure middle-class life, with decent wages and benefits. That's because most workers are covered by a union, giving them collective bargaining power and protections. And the government provides free health care, education, child care and job training.
We could have that here if young people understood the relationship between government, labor policies and their jobs. But voting rates among the young are abysmal. Even in 2008 when the young voter was supposed to be energized by the entry of Obama into the presidential race, less than 50 percent of eligible voters age 21 to 24 bothered to vote. During nonpresidential, congressional election years, the turnout is even worse. In 2006, only 22 percent of those voters came to the polls, compared with 60 percent of voters 65 years old and older. Guess why America's social safety net is skewed to the elderly.
One of the most important things young people can do to be treated decently over their working life is vote for politicians who put workers first. Only if that consciousness penetrates will America again start to work for Americans.