Why Millennials Will Enroll in Obamacare

Today's young people defy the usual assumption that they are risk takers.

Buying an ACA policy is a practice in patience.

Buying an ACA policy is a practice in patience.

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Everyone understands by now that the fate of Obamacare rests on whether millennials (young people born since 1982) will enroll. Many in the media are questioning whether they will, pointing to the bumpy rollout and off-putting, even lewd youth advertising, to say nothing of the fact that millennials weren't terribly keen about Obamacare to begin with. (They like Obama far better than Obamacare.) This lack of enthusiasm is understandable considering that Obamacare is expressly designed to subsidize older patients with younger and healthier adults. Fiscally, it's a raw deal for young people.

All of this has critics of Obamacare hoping – and proponents fearing – that millennials won't sign up for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), pushing the program into a cost-crunch death spiral. It will take several months before the dust settles to find out what the final numbers say, but it's likely that a surprisingly large share of millennials w­­­ill in fact opt to enroll in Obamacare.

According to a new Harvard University Institute of Politics Poll, 29 percent of 18- to 29-year olds without health insurance say they will definitely or likely enroll in the exchanges and another 41 percent say they are "50-50 at the moment." This is a surprisingly high share given the confusion and controversy surrounding a program that has hardly launched. These numbers are likely to grow in the coming months.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

Why will millennials opt for coverage? Not because of any allegiance to Obama – but rather because they put a high priority on ridding their lives of uncertainty. millennials defy the usual assumption that young people are risk takers, never think about the future, and regard themselves as "young invincibles." These characteristics might have been true for Boomers and Gen Xers as 20-somethings, but the reality has reversed.

Twenty years ago, young adults rarely thought much about healthcare – and often saved a few bucks by "going bare" and letting their health insurance lapse. Today's young adults, according to a Kaiser Foundation survey, are adopting a very different attitude. More than 7 in 10 millennials rate having health insurance as "very important," and similar shares feel that insurance is something they need and that it is worth the money. In fact, the millennial focus on insurance actually rises for later-born cohorts. millennials ages 18 to 25 (77 percent) are even more likely than millennials ages 26 to 30 (71 percent) to say insurance is very important to them personally.

Millennials are just as worried as older adults (both at nearly 70 percent) about paying medical bills for a serious illness or accident. More surprisingly, millennials are almost as worried as their elders about paying medical bills for routine healthcare – though they are far less likely to need it.


Why are youths focusing so much on health insurance? [See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The millennial preoccupation with monitoring their health (today, many wear FitBits and subscribe to the "Quantified Self" movement) started early in their childhood when they were obsessively monitored by their parents. First-wave millennials arrived amid "baby on board" stickers, LaMaze workshops, and family values slogans. It was a time when Boomer parents swayed public opinion decisively toward zealous child oversight. Not long afterwards, Xer parents began touting "attachment parenting." All along the way, millennials have grown accustomed to consulting with experts, at the behest of their parents, about their various problems. And, in respecting their parents' wishes, millennials themselves began prioritizing their own health.

They have visited physicians and therapists more frequently than earlier generations of children – and are thus more familiar with clinics, labs, and hospitals. A growing share of these young people are undergoing treatment for chronic maladies, like allergies and ADHD, which used to go untreated. They are accustomed to having a "team" of parents, doctors, and counselors huddle to confer on tweaking the med dosage or retesting the diagnostics.