For many, the 2008 election wasn’t just a victory for Democrats—it was also the long-awaited return of young adults to the voting booth. Now Obama supporters are hoping that, come Election Day 2012, young adults will once again turn out in droves. But 2008 probably didn’t signal a permanent resurgence of the youth vote. In fact, there are good reasons to believe that young people will vote in significantly lower numbers this time around.
It has long been a puzzle why so many young adults do not vote—and why their already low voting rate has generally fallen over the decades. In 1972, 53 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds went to the polls. By 2000, the figure had fallen to just 36 percent, a historic low. (In contrast, the voting rate among people aged 65 or older rose five percentage points during those years, to 68 percent.) There is no doubt that the Obama campaign of 2008 energized the under-30 crowd, boosting their voting rate to 46 percent. But even then, fewer than half of 18-to-29-year-olds went to the polls compared with more than two-thirds of people aged 65 or older, according to the Census Bureau.
So why don’t young adults vote? That’s a vexing question political campaigns have been asking for decades. The most likely answer is that young adults do not vote because many are still—in a sense—children, without adult commitments or responsibilities. The data suggest that three factors consistently make a difference in voting rates: money, marriage, and homeownership. Those are the adult commitments that give people a stake in society; to protect and expand their stake, they vote. Take a look at money and voting: The gap in voter participation between the highest and lowest income groups is a stunning 26 percentage points. For marriage and homeownership, the gaps are 16 to 17 percent.
Recent years have seen Americans in their twenties delay starting careers, getting married, and buying homes—and as the road to adulthood has lengthened, voting rates among the young have generally fallen (the notable exceptions are 2004 and 2008). Now, the bad economy is exacerbating these trends. For the nation’s young, the Great Recession has turned money, marriage, and homeownership into an impossible dream.
Let’s start with money. Among 18-to-29-year-olds in the labor force, fully 44 percent are unemployed or underemployed, according to a Gallup survey—that’s more than any other demographic segment. The financial consequences are not pretty. Householders under age 25 lost more ground than any other group between 2008 and 2010, according to the Census Bureau, their median income falling by 13 percent after adjusting for inflation. Those aged 25 to 29 had the next highest decline, with their median income falling five percent.
This economic climate has led twentysomethings to put off another traditional marker of adulthood: marriage. Young adults are not just postponing marriage—they are shunning it, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Being holed up in your parents’ basement with creditors pounding on the door does not impress the guys or girls. That scenario, playing out in communities across the nation, explains why 64 percent of men aged 25 to 29 were still single in 2011, up from 59 percent in 2008. Among women in the age group, the never-married share grew from 45 percent to just over 50 percent. Without financial security, marriage is increasingly off the table.
Not surprisingly, homeownership rates have similarly plunged among young adults. Historically, homeowners become the norm in the 30-to-34 age group, when the homeownership rate rises above 50 percent. This has been the case in every year of the Census Bureau’s data series, which began in 1982. A 53.5 percent majority of householders aged 30 to 34 owned their home in 2008. By 2011, however, only 49.8 percent were homeowners—the first time the figure has fallen below the 50 percent threshold.
It’s true that the economy has shown signs of recovery in the past few months. The number of jobs is growing, and unemployment is down. But the nine months between now and Election Day are not enough to gestate a generation of youth and turn them into voting adults. It takes years to catch up. Studies show that those who graduate from college into a bad economy experience long-term wage losses—particularly after being underemployed—with lower earnings even six years after recovery. Those wage losses will likely continue to have an effect on marriage and homeownership rates, which will in turn have an effect on voter turnout.
It’s a grim picture, and it almost (but not quite) guarantees that 18-to-29-year-olds will be less likely to vote in 2012 than in 2008. This is bad news for Obama, who will need the youth vote to win in November. It doesn’t mean, of course, that he shouldn’t try to recreate some of the enthusiasm he sparked among young voters in 2008—it just means he will be facing an uphill battle.
Cheryl Russell is the editorial director at New Strategist Publications and the former editor of American Demographics magazine. She blogs about demographic trends at demomemoblog.com.