Are you a young adult confused about your economic future? You’re not alone. The president brags of surging markets and job growth, but you’re getting rejected for every job you apply for, scrambling to pay rent, and stuck in a dead-end retail job. Maybe it’s time to take inspiration from the latest stats about millennials: Workers age 35 and under are the main component of an unprecedented surge in union membership over the past two years.
Nationwide in 2017, nearly 860,000 workers under age 35 got hired, and nearly a quarter of those were union jobs. According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, “Historically, younger workers have been less likely than older workers to be a member of union,” so in that sense there’s a lot of room to grow among younger workers, whose union membership lags behind other age groups. Millennials are responsible for a huge portion of the recent gains in union representation across the workforce, which has managed to remain fairly steady (yep, young people are keeping labor alive). Growing by some 198,000 workers, youth in union jobs are offsetting loss of union jobs in older age brackets; union jobs for workers age 45 to 54 dropped by some 75,000 over the same period.
So, in contrast to the myth of millennials’ being economically and politically adrift, they’re stepping in readily to fill the union ranks that have hemorrhaged middle-aged workers over the years—2017 actually saw an increase in the overall number of unionized workers over the previous year. A movement that we’re used to thinking of as getting older and smaller is actually growing stronger and younger—and they may well be leading the next progressive voting bloc in tandem with the labor movement.
In addition to breaking with an overall long-term decline in unionization across the workforce (now 10.7 percent), the youth surge highlights another dimension to the simultaneous rise in “gig economy” jobs. A recent analysis of job growth since 2005 reveals massive growth in temporary, irregular, or subcontracted work, known for unstable pay and precarious working conditions. And yet there hasn’t been a correlating backslide necessarily in younger workers’ labor power. There are actually signs that youth are increasingly driven to join unions precisely in response to economic precarity and eroding economic mobility. Even youth-oriented sectors have seen high-profile union victories, from digital-newsroom unions at Vice and Fusion to graduate-faculty unions at many public and increasingly, private, university campuses.