Micro-Macro Connection

Generation Wars?

As the Millennium Generation ages and begins to control important social institutions, their attitudes and behaviors will shape reality for other cohorts in U.S. society. But for now, older generations, especially Baby Boomers, so dominate the cultural and economic landscape that they have evoked a fair amount of resentment from Millennials. The wealth gap between Baby Boomers and younger generations of Americans is the widest on record. The typical household headed by someone over 65 has a net worth 25 times greater than a household headed by someone under 35 (Taylor, 2014a).

The recent recession hit Millennials particularly hard. Their unemployment rate remains significantly higher than that of older cohorts and more Millennials are burdened with student debt than any previous generation of young adults (Pew Research Center, 2014c). Between 2008 and 2014, the proportion of Millennials who describe themselves as middle class dropped from 53% to 42% while the proportion who consider themselves lower or lower-middle class increased from 25% to 46% (Pew Research Center, 2014c). Consequently, 40% of men and 32% of women between 18 and 32 now live with their parents—the largest number in modern history (Taylor, 2014a)—and 60% rely on them for financial support (Davidson, 2014). As one writer put it, the financial crisis “battered career prospects, drove hundreds of thousands into the shelter of school or parents’ basements and left hundreds of thousands of others in continual underemployment” (Lowrey, 2013b, p. 12).

To make matters worse, younger Americans will have to foot the bill for the massive national debt racked up by Baby Boomers. One writer even blames the “greed, shortsightedness, and blind partisanship” of Baby Boomers for bringing “the global economy to its knees (quoted in Kotkin, 2012, p. 42).

Not surprisingly, about 60% of Americans have doubts that the next generation will have the opportunity to live better than their parents (Saad, 2012). The situation has led some to refer to Millennials as “Generation Squeezed” (Samuelson, 2012), “The Go-Nowhere Generation,” “Generation Why Bother,” (Buchholz & Buchholz, 2012), or “Generation Screwed” (Kotkin, 2012). It’s no wonder that many young people today view older generations with disdain. A syndicated columnist described the intergenerational animosity this way:

We grew up in the shadow of the baby boomers, who still manage, in their [old age], to commandeer disproportionate attention. Every time they hit a life cycle milestone it’s worth 10 magazine covers. When they retire, the Social Security system will go under! When they die, narcissism will be so much lonelier. (A. O. Scott, 2010, p. 4)

There’s even a blog called Boomer Deathwatch that provides a checklist of boomer celebrities who are approaching what should be the end of their life expectancy. The site also offers a list of what it calls baby boomer “hatesites.”

Yet the news is not all bad. Millennials remain significantly more upbeat than their elders. One poll found that only 9% of 18- to 34-year-olds say they don’t think they will ever be able to have enough to live the life they want. In contrast, 28% of adults ages 35 and older say they don’t anticipate making enough money in the future (Pew Research Center, 2012c).


The Peculiar Politics of Immigration

Immigration is one of the hot-button political issues of our time. But it’s not one of those issues where liberals and conservatives line up neatly on opposing sides.

As you might expect, some conservative politicians consider the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country to be invaders who threaten national security, take away jobs from U.S. citizens, and change the culture by refusing to assimilate (Katel, 2005). Indeed, some members of Congress now question the validity of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which stipulates that any baby born in the United States, regardless of the citizenship status of his or her parents, is automatically a U.S. citizen. In 2015, the billionaire, Donald Trump, openly expressed such hostility in a speech announcing his candidacy for president in the 2016 election:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists (quoted in Benen, 2015, p. 1).

Conservative legislators typically support laws that would provide funds to toughen border security. The number of border patrol agents assigned to the U.S.–Mexico border has increased steadily since the early 1990s. In 1992, there were 3,555 border patrol agents assigned to this region; by 2000, that number had increased to 8,580. Since 2000, the number of agents in the Southwest has more than doubled to 18,156 agents (Customs and Border Protection, 2014).

In 2010, Arizona attracted national attention when it became the first state to enact a law that makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives police broad powers to detain anyone who “appears” to be in the country illegally. Polls taken at the time indicated that a majority of Americans supported such a measure, even though they felt it would likely lead to racial profiling (Archibold & Thee-Brenan, 2010). The following year, five more states—Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah—passed similar laws. In fact, in the span of two years, 164 anti-immigration bills were passed around the country (Gordon & Raja, 2012). Alabama’s law is particularly rigorous. It cuts off all state and local services to undocumented immigrants, makes it a crime to hire, rent property to, or “harbor” unauthorized immigrants, and deputizes local police officers to initiate deportation proceedings if they encounter someone suspected of being here illegally (Symmes, 2012).

But addressing the problem of illegal immigration is not as simple as locking down borders, detaining people who “look” illegal, and kicking individuals out of the country. In fact, such a position may actually conflict with other conservative ideals, such as the importance of intact families. Nearly half of all unauthorized immigrants are parents (Pew Hispanic Center, 2013) and about 350,000 children are born to at least one unauthorized immigrant each year (Passel & Cohn, 2011). Because people born in the United States automatically become American citizens, the political desire for deportations can create serious problems for these families. It’s estimated that in 2013, 72,000 undocumented immigrants who were deported were the parents of children born in the United States (Foley, 2014). So what should happen to these children? If a child is deported along with her or his parents, then technically the government is deporting an American citizen. On the other hand, if the parents are allowed to remain in the country, they are being given a special—and, in some people’s minds, unwarranted—benefit (Falcone, 2009).

Some liberal politicians have also called on the government to limit immigration by sealing the borders. Their primary concern is that foreign immigrants, both authorized and unauthorized, hurt poor U.S. residents by directly competing with them for low-level jobs (Danziger & Gottschalk, 2004). And because they’re usually willing to work for less money, some economists point out, undocumented workers depress wages among the less skilled native-born workers (Broder, 2006; Frank, 2013; Lowenstein, 2006).

In 2011, the Obama administration began cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants while at the same time it moved away from arresting the workers themselves (Preston, 2011). In 2013, Congress, with unanimous Democratic support, passed an immigration reform bill that, doubled the number of border patrol agents, required the construction of 700 miles of additional fencing, required employers to use an e-Verify system to check the citizenship status of all job applicants, and provided funding for unmanned aerial drones to patrol the border (O’Keefe, 2013).

But pro-immigrant sentiment can be found on both ends of the political spectrum, too. To some fiscal conservatives, immigrants make important contributions to the economy (Fairlie, 2012). For instance, immigrants are 30% more likely to start a new business than native-born Americans, and for every 100 foreign-born workers in science and technology, 262 additional jobs are created (cited in Brooks, 2013). Fifteen percent of U.S. workers are born outside the United States (P. Martin & Midgley, 2010). One study found that a 1% increase in employment in a state due to immigration produces an income increase of 0.5% in that state (Peri, 2009). Struggling cities in the Midwest, like Dayton, Chicago, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and St. Louis, have adopted initiatives that seek to attract immigrants—both highly skilled workers and low-wage laborers—in hopes they will stimulate their sluggish local economies (Preston, 2013).

Moreover, unauthorized immigrants make up about 5.1% of the nation’s labor force, and are concentrated primarily in the sort of low-skilled jobs that most citizens don’t want. In fact, unauthorized immigrants outnumber U.S.-born workers in hotel, food service, construction, transportation, extraction, and farming jobs (Passel & Cohn, 2015). As one journalist put it, without undocumented immigrants,

fruit and vegetables would rot in fields. Toddlers in Manhattan would be without nannies. Towels at hotels in states like Florida, Texas, and California would go unlaundered. Commuters at airports from Miami to Newark would be stranded as taxi cabs sat driverless. Home improvement projects across the Sun Belt would grind to a halt. And bedpans and lunch trays at nursing homes in Chicago, New York, Houston, and Los Angeles would go uncollected. (D. E. Murphy, 2004, p. 1)

Furthermore, some conservative economists argue that Social Security would go broke without the $7 billion or so in annual payments from undocumented workers, many of whom—contrary to popular perceptions—pay their share of income taxes (D. E. Murphy, 2004; Porter, 2005).

For many liberal-leaning civil rights organizations and advocates for ethnic minorities, immigration is a human rights issue, and hostility toward immigrants is seen as fundamentally racist (Holmes, 1995). They point to the fact that immigrants, in general, tend to have lower educational achievement, higher rates of poverty, more families without health insurance, and more families on public assistance than native-born U.S. residents (Camarota, 2004). In 2014, President Obama announced a program that will give parents of children who are American citizens or who have lived in the U.S. for more than five years relief from deportation if they register with the government, undergo background checks, and pay taxes. Congress has yet to pass legislation that would make this reform permanent.

For their part, the public, too, has mixed feelings about immigration. We are, as two researchers for the Population Reference Bureau put it, “a nation of immigrants unsure about immigration” (P. Martin & Midgley, 2010, p. 6). For instance, in a recent poll, 72% of respondents said that undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in the country legally, if they meet certain requirements. And while roughly half (51%) said immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, 41% felt that immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care. In addition, more people felt that legal immigration should be decreased (31%) than felt it should be increased (24%; Pew Research Center, 2015b).

Just how broader economic conditions will affect public attitudes and political action is unclear. Heightened competition over a shrinking supply of jobs could lead to increased hostility against immigrants and louder calls for more restrictive laws or tougher enforcement of existing laws. Government limitations on the number of immigrants entering the country could improve the employment prospects of poor, less educated, native-born workers, who are likely to be hardest hit by economic downturns.

But such political action may be unnecessary. The flow of illegal immigrants from Latin America into the United States has slowed in recent years. After peaking at 12.2 million in 2007, the number of undocumented immigrants dropped following the economic recession and has stabilized at around 11.3 million a year since (Passel, Cohn, Krogstad, & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2014). The drop has been particularly steep among undocumented Mexican immigrants (Passel, Cohn, & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2012). Between 2000 and 2004, there were more than 500,000 illegal border crossings per year; by 2010, the figure dropped to 100,000 (cited in Cave, 2011). Experts attribute the decrease not only to economic slowdowns and immigration crackdowns in the United States but also to expanding economic and educational opportunities and declining birthrates in Mexico.

You can see that the immigration issue illustrates a clash of political and economic forces. To politicians of all stripes, immigration is a crucial and sometimes volatile issue. But as long as powerful business interests see the need for a pool of cheap, mobile labor that is willing to work outside union and regulatory constraints, attempts to crack down on illegal immigration will remain ineffective. As long as jobs are available, poor foreigners will continue to come here seeking a better life.