The issue of U.S. trade continues to be hotly debated this election year. One group of supporters, Millennials, may shape public sentiment and policy about the topic in surprising ways.
Getting free trade agreements through Congress has become increasingly difficult even in non-election years. Exit polls from recent primaries signal widespread public concern that trade lowers American wages and leads to job losses. This is not surprising given the campaign rhetoric about whether America is able to compete fairly in the global economy: Have we given away the store to China? Are we being undercut by Mexico? What is the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
While careening from one debate to another, the trade policy community has largely overlooked a constituency that is naturally inclined to see trade as a positive: Millennials.
The Millennial demographic is the largest generation in the U.S. workforce—in ten years, they will make up as much as 75 percent of our modern workforce. Millennials are ambitious, but they define success differently from older generations, who tend to value security and vertical growth in an organization. They are socially connected but don’t want to be tethered to large companies.
Starting a business these days is hip. More than half of Millennials want to launch their own business or already have. Just take a look at the “Forbes 30 Under 30” list where you’ll find many founders, co-founders and CEOs – and not just in the tech or retail sectors as you might expect. They are in finance, manufacturing and healthcare. Millennials are willing to take risks, an inclination borne of inspiration but also frustration with traditional routes they saw as increasingly closed to them during the recession.
Starting a business these days is also very doable, with the ability to “go live” and “go global” simultaneously using digital platforms. They know their business might only need talent, Skype and the cloud to reach global customers. This penchant for starting businesses is critical for the U.S. economy. In any given year, new and young businesses create nearly all net new jobs, and trade policies that increase access to overseas markets helps those businesses access new customers around the world.
Generation Y is on course to become the most educated in American history, a trend driven largely by the demands of a modern knowledge-based economy. These newer workers are more mobile than the last decade, and 66 percent believe they need international experience to further their career. Because Millennials show a higher ability to adjust to labor market conditions, they feel personally less worried about the implications of competition through trade. To the contrary, more than any other age group, 56 percent of young adults view free trade agreements as helpful to their personal finances.
When it comes to trade, Millennials appear to be both positive and pragmatic. They appreciate that trade is the source of products, services and ideas they enjoy, and they believe trade offers them opportunity and advantage.
Millennials were young children when Ross Perot warned about the perils of NAFTA in the 1988 presidential campaign. While Washington trade policy elites focus on the fate of big trade deals before Congress, what if this generation is having its “giant sucking sound” moment, turning them into skeptics about whether trade policy can work for them?
Millennials are innovating, dreaming and doing. They are rapidly changing the nature of our workforce and therefore becoming central constituents our trade policy should be designed to serve. Millennials may be the key to overcoming the negative knock on trade. Most importantly, our trade policy needs to be infused with their vision so we can usher in the next generation of American leadership on trade.
Andrea Durkin is Principal of Sparkplug, a consulting and advisory firm based in Washington, D.C.
Any views expressed are those of the author.