Schneider: Mass. must answer cynicism of young adults

John Schneider

Plunging stock prices, billion dollar revenue shortfalls, and massive budget cuts have, in rapid sequence, commandeered this year's elections. Economic stability, particularly personal finances, will strongly influence the decision-making of all voters, from the most cynical to the highest-minded. For Massachusetts young adults, the economic climate may serve to fortify their opinions.

In July of 2008, MassINC released, "Great Expectations: A Survey of Young Adults in Massachusetts," which polled 801 young adults between the ages of 25 and 39 on a range of views - from housing, taxes and jobs to optimism about the future and how likely they were to relocate. The findings provided a first ever (to our knowledge) window into the personal and policy preferences of this economically significant group - a goldmine of information for marketers, elected officials and employers hoping to attract and retain workers.

The survey found that not only were young adults in Massachusetts anxious about their personal finances, they had little confidence in the government's overall effectiveness. According to the participants, the biggest issues requiring state and local attention are reducing taxes, making housing more affordable and improving job opportunities. Yet only 4 percent of those surveyed said they are very confident that state and local government could improve the policy area that they believe should be government's highest priority. Sixty-two percent said they are either not too confident or not at all confident about government's ability to address these concerns.

This lack of confidence and a basic mistrust in government contribute to skepticism about taxes. If people are not confident in government, then they are less likely to support it by paying more taxes. Only 21 percent of those with not too much or no confidence believed taxes were about right.

What does all this tell us? And what does it mean for this year's elections? For one thing, cynicism about government, coupled with a preoccupation with pocketbook issues, would suggest strong showings for Question 1 - a repeal of the Massachusetts state income tax - as well as more fiscally conservative candidates. Perhaps more important, however, is that these views send a message to Beacon Hill that as lawmakers address the fiscal gap, they should look as well to the confidence gap before this perfect storm becomes a tsunami.

Restoring confidence in government among young adults should be a priority for our public officials for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this group needs to succeed them. (The survey also showed that, compared with baby boomers, young adults are less involved in their communities and the political process overall.) The more pressing reason is that a lack of confidence dissolves the power of leadership to unite disparate voices, build consensus, and rally support for the tough choices that times of crisis demand.

Public officials must earn the trust of young people by showing them that they understand their issues and will focus on the things that make it possible for them to lay down roots in our state. When more progress is made on housing affordability, jobs and the cost of living - resentment will abate on taxes and support for government will grow.

Getting more young people engaged in the political process could be vital to addressing the confidence gap. Civic and political leaders should look for new ways to engage young adults in public issues by supporting organizations like the MetroWest Leadership Academy, which, like counterparts throughout the state, create opportunities for civic and political engagement. The public sector might look to the private sector for inspiration as well. Our survey found that nearly three quarters of young adults believe that working for a socially responsible employer is very important which may indicate a new social compact.

Finally, young adults must reconcile their own contradictory public positions, made glaringly obvious by this summer's research. In addition to a strong distrust of government, the survey found that young people still want state and local government to make progress on a long list of public policy issues, including education, transportation and other issues that will require public money. At a time when so many citizens will have less, it is foolish to think that anyone can have it both ways.

John Schneider is executive vice president of MassINC. For more information about the Great Expectations report, go