The millennial generation came of age—and attended school—during a time when authorities were fixated on standardized testing, competition, and top-down accountability. Education budgets took twin hits from the deep recession and politicians who promised austerity. When schools struggled, officials cast blame on educators and advocated for school choice and privatization, rather than strengthening public schools to meet students’ needs. It is striking that, in a recent national poll, millennials see through the ruse for what it was, and support investment in public education, strengthening teachers’ voice and agency through unions, and public schools over alternatives.
The poll, conducted in September by the GenForward Survey Project housed at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, surveyed nearly 2,000 respondents between the ages of 18 and 34. Drawing on a nationally representative sample of African-American, Asian, Latinx, and white millennials, the poll asked a number of questions about public education. While millennials give the nation’s public schools mixed grades, they strongly support public education over privatized alternatives. Seventy-one percent of respondents said that increasing funding would do more to improve public education than providing more vouchers. And respondents’ top answer for the best way to improve K-12 education in local districts is to increase school funding.
Asked whether strengthening or weakening teachers’ unions would do more to improve public education, more than three quarters of millennials expressed support for strengthening the unions. The GenForward poll mirrors other recent public opinion polls showing deep and broad support for labor unions. A 2017 Pew study found that 75 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds have a favorable view of labor unions, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that same year
Millennials have come of age in a time of huge economic inequality and uncertainty. While economic anxiety has dropped for most Americans, 18- to 24-year-olds are now more anxious than ever. Another 2017 study—this one from the financial services company Northwestern Mutual—found that financial anxiety has made almost one-quarter of millennials feel physically ill weekly or monthly.
In late summer, the National Opinion Research Corporation found that 48 percent of all nonunionized workers would join a union if given the opportunity to do so—a four-decade high. That translates to 58 million Americans who would join a union if they could—quadruple the number of current union members in the country. It’s easy to see the appeal of unions to millennials, many of whom work temp jobs, gigs, and side hustles. Many are underemployed, face stagnant wages, and lack paid leave and affordable health care. And they’re not doing as well as their parents. Analyzing data from the Federal Reserve, the advocacy group Young Invincibles concluded that millennials earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at the same stage of life. They have half the net worth, lower rates of home ownership, and drastically higher student debt, according to the 2017 study.
Of course, many millennials know the power and potential of public education and of unions from their own work experience—as teachers, school employees, and other union workers. The wave of school walkouts last spring showed that by joining together individuals can achieve things that would be impossible on their own. I marched with striking teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. I’ve rallied with educators in Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. I hear strikingly similar themes, regardless of where I have been: Young professionals are frustrated that their low pay prevents them from buying a home, paying off student debt, and even starting a family. They see collective action through their union as their best shot to achieve their economic and personal aspirations.
Some speculated that the recent Supreme Court decision in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 case, whose backers intended to “defund and defang” public employee unions, would weaken teachers’ unions so much that our opponents could further reduce funding for public schools and promote school privatization. Ironically, what these anti-union proponents seek is exactly the opposite of what millennials support. And their hopes to gut teachers’ unions have also been stymied—teachers are sticking with their unions, and public support for unions is at the highest level it has been in 15 years.
Think about how ordinary Americans get ahead: by getting a good education, having voice and agency in their job, and voting. Millennials clearly want to support strong public schools and see the value of unions—and they are expanding as a share of the electorate. Millennials, together with members of Generation X, cast almost 70 million votes in the 2016 election—outvoting baby boomers and prior generations by 2 million votes. Baby boomers still make up the largest segment of the electorate—35 percent—but their numbers peaked in 2004. Politicians who fail to pay attention to the concerns and priorities of this generation do so at their peril.
A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week