This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. This month, each fellow has been charged by fellowship director Reid Cramer to explain why anyone, but especially millennials, should care about the specific policy interests they’re passionate about.
As my graduation date loomed closer, professors, relatives, and even well-meaning strangers asked with increasing frequency and judgment, “So, do you know what you’re doing next?” I considered myself lucky—I had finalized my post-graduation plans soon after graduation. Armed with a newly minted degree, I joined the workforce full-time in 2015, helping millennials surpass Generation X in becoming the largest generation in the U.S. labor force.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than one-in-three American workers at the time were millennials, adults born between roughly 1980 and 2000. Yet, many of my peers were not part of this statistic; 4.6 million millennials made up 40 percent of the nation’s unemployed individuals that same year.
Those of us who are employed do not seem to fare any better, with recent newspaper headlines reading “millennials earn 20% less than Boomers did at same stage of life” and “Why Are Millennial Salaries Disproportionately Low?” In 2015, an estimated 28 million millennials were not in school and making less than $10,000 annually. Confronted with relatively high unemployment rates, low wages, and crippling student-loan debt, it follows that an estimated 70 million millennials have less income to spend and are more keenly feeling the harsh effects of income inequality, which further exacerbates wealth inequality in turn.
Many have suggested a link between this disconcerting state of accelerating inequality and market concentration, a link that drives the current populist movement in antitrust. While market concentration does not necessarily equate market power, there is growing concern over firms’ market power—a term that in antitrust lexicon refers to the ability of sufficiently large companies to raise prices alone or prevent new competition from undercutting high prices in their respective markets; the term may not be used consistently in this way, however. Economist Joseph Stiglitz has written about the role of firms’ growing “market power” in driving up prices for consumers and lowering both workers’ wages and the standard of living. Notwithstanding differences in philosophies toward the nature of antitrust in addressing market concentration, numerous politicians, journalists, and scholars have advocated for antitrust law and competition policy to specifically address this growing inequality through a wide range of policy initiatives, including more robust antitrust enforcement or incorporating the potential effects of a merger on employment in antitrust analysis.
As the largest generation in today’s labor force and earners of disproportionately low wages, millennials have a key stake in the policy arena surrounding antitrust and competition policy. Though antitrust law may seem niche or abstract, it is part of the larger body of law that plays an active role in structuring society’s social and political order through the construction of wealth, power, and race. Jobs, occupational licenses, and intellectual property are all concepts mediated by law, which protects and upholds private interests, drawing boundaries and enforcing existing regimes of power. Law and legal institutions have at times created and maintained racialized wealth disparities, perpetuating racial privilege by regulating access to voting, transportation, education, and employment.
Similarly, the effects of antitrust law can be seen in the conditions it sets up around millennials’ lives. Antitrust law aims to promote fair competition. Fair competition means ensuring that small business owners have a fair chance at succeeding in their business ventures, which matters because older millennials are over 50 percent more likely to start their own business. Fair competition means preventing firms from rolling out unjustified higher prices to consumers, which matters because this enables millennials to stretch their disproportionately low salaries further and potentially begin accumulating wealth. Fair competition means preventing employers from colluding in the job market to yield higher wages and better benefits, which matters because non-compete agreements more likely hinder junior employees—more likely to be millennials—than senior ones.
Renata Hesse in her former role as Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice Antitrust Division said it best: “In general, competition is fair because it distributes these rewards broadly to participants in the economy. But when companies harm competition – choking off competition or agreeing with rivals not to compete – they infect the economy with unfairness by accumulating power that the few can wield at the expense of the broader American public.” She deemed the goal of antitrust law to promote “economic fairness,” a term that more vigorously invokes egalitarianism ideals than “fair competition” does—a reframing that satiates populist demands while still emphasizing outcomes that antitrust and competition policy already work toward.
There is a prevalent stereotype that millennials are entitled, narcissistic, and lazy, reinforced by the aforementioned statistics. But by unpacking this stereotype and examining the context in which millennials struggle to find employment and make a living, we may begin to realize the ways in which constraints on opportunities imposed by firms that abuse market power significantly deter millennials. In the midst of heightened popular interest and the circulation of numerous policy proposals in antitrust, we as a society are at a critical juncture in contemplating how we would like to structure policies—both inside and outside the realm of antitrust—that have tangible implications on everyday lives. Millennials, too, have a stake in this policy debate.