Why Millennials Are Pro-Union But Don't Actually Join Them

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Buried in a Pew Research survey released earlier this year is an interesting tidbit: Millennials (people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s) hold a much more favorable view of labor unions than do older Americans. The statistic presents a bit of a paradox because young people are, far and away, the least likely age group to be members of a union.

If Millennials are such staunch supporters of unions, why aren't they actually joining them?

"I think the reason Millennials tend to be positive on union is that they're what's called a 'civic generation,'" explained Michael Hais, co-author of the book Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America. "They are very group-oriented and look out for the benefit of the group over individuals. They have an ingrained sense of equality and want to find win-win situations that benefit large groups of people."

Hais asserts that civic generations, another example of which is the so-called "Greatest Generation," are strongly influenced by economic and foreign policy stressors during their formative years. For the Greatest Generation, those experiences were the Great Depression and WWII. For their part, Millennials were similarly shaped by the high unemployment rates of the Great Recession and 9/11 attacks. "Growing up in the shadow of these events gave Millennials the conviction that everyone needs to pull together to get through," argued Hais.

The poll, which was conducted in July, found that 61% of respondents aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of labor unions, while only 45% viewed such organizations negatively. In all other age groups, support for unions never rose above 50%. Positive opinions about unions generally dropped as people got older, bottoming out with only 42% of people 65 and over holding a supportive opinion of organized labor.

Conversely, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only a small fraction of Millennials have actually joined a union. Just 5% of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are union members. That number increases to 10.7% for people between the ages of 25 and 35; however, those rates are still the lowest of any other age cohort.

No union choice

Dr. Diane Frey, an assistant professor of labor studies at the National Labor College, says the primary reason for Millennials' low union participation rate isn't that young people are making the active choice to avoid signing up. Instead, she insisted, most simply do not have the option.

As the American economy has become largely post-industrial, fewer private sector jobs are unionized. ‟Some of the really decent professions that have in the past been good entry ways for new generations of workers, such as public sector teaching, are being dismantled with new disposable models where younger workers are basically sweated in programs like Teach-for-America that are not meant to be sustainable as careers," she says.

Rates of union membership are significantly higher in the public sector than in the private firms (35% vs. 6%, respectively).

The average age of public sector employees is also far higher. U.S. Postal Service workers, for example, have a  median age of 52. This greying of the government workforce is largely a result of the economic slowdown having pushed many older workers to delay retirement — thereby decreasing the number of open slots for Millennials.

Additionally, shrinking governmental budgets, combined with the shrinking effects of the sequester, have initiated years of layoffs and hiring freezes at agencies around the country. As such, municipalities have often eliminated the entry-level positions that could set Millennials off on unionized careers in government service.

Tim McManus of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service told Governing Magazine that he's seen a dramatic reduction in the number of paid summer internships offered by governmental agencies. He added that, even though some parts of the government have started to hire staff again, ‟they tend to hire veterans who can hit the ground running," instead of fresh-faced young people just getting their start in the labor force.

Ironically, this locking out of many Millennials from likely unionized public sector careers comes at a time when college students' interest in working for the government is on the rise. The number of enrollees in graduate programs for public administration grew by 5% in 2012, a significantly larger increase than for business programs.

Another reason for the low membership rate is a changing conception of what a ‟normal" career is supposed to look like. During the heyday of the labor movement, there was the assumption that someone could remain employed at the same company for his or her entire working life. For Millennials, who, on average, will hold seven different jobs by the time they hit 26, the idea of staying at single firm in a single industry represented by a single union can seem almost laughably antiquated.

The genius of unions

While union membership among Millennials is low, it is by no means non-existent. Ashley Mahne, an immunologist who recently became a post-doctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, never envisioned herself as a union member before being asked if she wanted to join on after starting her new position at the university earlier this month.

‟Given their level of education and expertise, I feel post-docs are generally underpaid and under-appreciated, so if organizing together could give us a little more clout, I think that would be a good thing," explained Mahne, who noted that dues would have been deducted from her paycheck even if she declined membership.

Mahne was personally ambivalent about unions prior to joining one herself. ‟Historically, they've been critical to securing protections and fair wages for laborers," she said, ‟but in the present day, they sometimes appear to be more obstructionist than helpful."

However, it was a quotation at the bottom of the membership form by Albert Einstein, who was a charter member of his union at Princeton, that ultimately swayed Mahne to sign up: ‟I consider it important, indeed urgently necessary, for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and also, generally speaking, to secure their influence in the political field."

‟I mean, if Einstein says it's a good idea," said Mahne, ‟who am I to argue?"

Young or old, union or not

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