Millennial Week is over, but not our problems

Millennial Week celebration in Washington, D.C., last week was a reminder of the potential power held by my generation to change our nation. In 2020, millennials will make up more than one-third of the American electorate. We’re influential and innovative, so naturally some of America’s wealthiest conservative leaders, including Pete Peterson, want to be “cool” with us (which is why he helped sponsor the event).

But being a true champion and advocate for America's largest generation means helping them fulfill the unrealized promise of American democracy— a place with liberty and justice for all.  This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project where thousands of young people used civic participation to win an equal political voice for underserved communities.

ADVERTISEMENT
Today, America is a more multiracial nation where an equal voice in our political system is widely accepted as the ideal norm. But we need to go back to Mississippi in 2014 to create a clearer path to the American Dream that allowed generations before us to obtain good jobs, buy houses, raise families and enjoy a dignified retirement.

Economic insecurity caused by massive student loan debt and attacks on Social Security threaten to cripple our future.

Millennials stand to be burdened with more than $1 trillion in student loan debt due to rising tuition costs, interest rates and funding cuts. Two-thirds of college seniors now graduate with an average of $26,600 in student loans. In my own network of family and friends, student debt has been eating away at our hard-earned income. We should feel proud pursuing a higher education. Instead student loan debt leaves many working families feeling like we’re being punished for doing so.

While this may seem like a problem one escapes by age 40, research shows student loan debt continues to haunt working Americans into retirement. Americans 60 and older still owe about $36 billion in student loans, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Imagine how many more of us will be repaying college loans with our Social Security checks if the status quo holds, wages remain stagnant, and living costs continue to rise.

Millennial workers will be more reliant on Social Security’s guaranteed benefits than previous generations.

Social Security remains the last sturdy leg of America’s three-legged-stool of retirement. It’s also a critical part of delivering retirement security to today’s youngest workers who are less likely to have access to a retirement plan at work.

This successful program keeps 22 million older Americans out of poverty. However, its monthly benefits are far too modest for low-income retirees living on less than $1,200 in benefits.

Strengthening Social Security would greatly improve benefits for today’s retirees and protect millennials in their elder years. After all, many of us are working in low-paying jobs and are unable to save.

We could achieve this goal simply by making every American pay their fair share into Social Security.

Americans only pay Social Security taxes on their first $117,000 of wages each year. Workers who earn more than that or investors who earn money from dividends and capital gains don’t pay Social Security taxes on their additional income. In other words, the wealthy 1 percent pays less than 2 percent of their income in Social Security while the rest of us pay 6.2 percent.

That’s not right. Social Security was intended to help America keep its promise of retirement security after a life of hard work and playing by the rules; not as a tax break for the extremely rich.

Not surprisingly, many of these guys don’t agree with that statement. That’s why Peterson and others have been funneling millions of dollars into efforts to spread doomsday rhetoric about Social Security. They also fund groups like The Can Kicks Back to perpetuate the belief our grandparents are ruining our future by receiving Social Security. This group also advocates raising student loan interest rates and other measures contradictory to supporting today’s young Americans.

Regardless of what the critics say, the sky is not falling nor is Social Security. However, bad policies that threaten our future do need to fall by the wayside.

With Millennial Week behind us, I encourage my peers to use Freedom Summer to demand good jobs, affordable education and housing, and retirement security.

Thompson is millennial coordinator for the Service Employees Internaeional Union (SEIU).