« Centrism | Main | Economics As Religion »

November 29, 2006

My Life

Talking to Campus Progress, Andy Stern reveals:

We’re thinking of creating a new organization called My Life that would be mainly focused on 18 to 34 year olds. It would be web-based, and what it would allow people to do is purchase on a national level health care that you can move from job to job. You’d also be able to do things like tweak your resume on file permanently in your personal account. You could access debit cards potentially and start doing some of the new financial transactions like putting money on your cell phone. It would have opportunities for people to network with other people who are doing similar jobs or somewhat of a Craigslist-type function. It would be in some ways what AARP is for seniors: a place that advocates on their behalf. But clearly it’s a different form of organization; whether you call that a union, or an internet community, or an association, I’m not sure. But it has that kind of potential.

That strikes me as a generally decent idea: I don't know that the history of established institutions creating social networking sites inspires confidence in SEIU's ability to pull such a project off, but there's no particular reason an online community devoted to providing services and benefits to young professionals -- along with the expertise and, at times, representation offered by unions -- can't succeed. It'll be unions-lite; a soft introduction into the labor movement for a whole generation of workers. And there are, in fact, quite a lot of services such a site could conceivably offer, from advice on obtaining health care to anonymous workplace complaints to generalized bitching (and the internets are here for nothing if not generalized bitching) to simply finding out if something unsettling going on above you is, in fact, illegal or discriminatory*. It all seems rather useful, even obvious.

Gonna have to do something about that name, though.

Question: I can't shake the feeling that there are really smart, useful services an organization like this can provide. It's also 8:30 in the morning and I spent yesterday on a plane, so my imaginative capacity is rather low. Put some bright ideas in the comments, though: Various SEIU folks read this blog, so you can Make A Difference, or something.

November 29, 2006 in Labor | Permalink


This is a fantastic idea that sounds inevitable once you think of it.

It also sounds like the kind of thing that the US govt. should be doing already.

Posted by: Tracer Hand | Nov 29, 2006 9:32:26 AM

My, my, what goes around comes around. Try looking up 'Friendly Society' or ...ies. This is simply one of those on the internet.
Health insurance, unemployment insurance, savings plans, mortgages, all supplied by groups of people, civil society if you wish, gathering together to provide collectively what they couldn't individually. No government needed either, so no skimming off the top by them of the politicians. What's not to like? It was done a couple of centuries ago and could be done now, only on a greater scale with the 'net.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Nov 29, 2006 9:40:51 AM

It would be a great pressure point on Washington, showing the way back towards univeral services for the American people.

Posted by: Sceptic | Nov 29, 2006 9:41:10 AM

This fails to address the main problem with employer-based health coverage: that it's employer based. So "job portability" would require massive buy-in by the employers (extremely unlikely), or you would be paying for duplicate coverage, which is both messy (neither company wants to pay for everything, so they will dither around 'negotiating' while your bills keep coming) and potentially useless.

The other stuff is fine, but sounds kind of contrived. There are already plenty of social and professional networking orgs.

Posted by: winner | Nov 29, 2006 9:43:47 AM

If SEIU actually pulled something like this together for young people, it would be a huge step forward for the labor movement. Unions are an essential part of rebuilding the middle class, but they have little or no outreach program for young people.

Stern is articulating an outline of an organization that could be very useful. I know that I am worried about affording healthcare when I graduate college.

Posted by: Ben Waxman | Nov 29, 2006 9:44:09 AM

And this would mean, what? That you lose your healthcare once you hit a certain age, and then it jumps in costs because you'll be in the other part of the demographic?

I got cheap health insurance through the University of Maryland when I matriculated, but I wore it out really fast when I ran into an actual, y'know, condition. Luckily, I lived close to NIH, which had a program for what I had.

I like the idea of half the country getting together to create a union that, among other things, negotiates group health insurance for a large swath of people, but I'm not all that happy with the idea of young people being on a separate plan from everyone else who needs it more. It's an easy way out for insurers and it would probably only serve to obscure for young people what the real threats they face further up the line are.

Posted by: Avedon | Nov 29, 2006 9:52:54 AM

I don't know how important the social network aspect of it is per se - but then, I'm an old fogey of 34, and I think myspace is stupid. BUT the health & financial sevrices aspect of it is brilliant. Brilliant. I had health care for about 8 months of my life in the near-decade between college and marriage - years during which I made much of my living doing construction. Risky, but I had no $$$. But this kind of situation - where you can buy in early, get good rates, and stick with it - would have appealed enormously. One interesting thing is, wouldn't health insurance for 18-34 years olds be super-cheap?

I think the way you get around any kind of discrimination issues is to put certain hard limits on the health care, so that people who can afford it would have an incentive to move up to "grownup" care. I know it's not that simple, but it seems like a direction to explore.

As for the Union Lite idea, I like that a lot too. Credit Unions are a better deal than banks, but in many (most?) states, you have to be a teacher, or whatever, to join. Make this a sort of national credit union for the young, and suddenly you're providing two very useful, very portable services that inspire a lot of loyalty. If the fluffier stuff helps draw people, then all the better.

And actually, I could see the usefulness of this as a professional parallel to myspace. There was just a story on NPR (I said I was a fogey) about companies that will scrub your google results - essentially google-bomb nice web pages about you so that Puking in Acapulco Pics gets pushed to the second or third page. Build in that kind of feature - so that any prospective employer who searches for you online gets a nice, professional homepage, plus some nice, non-threatening personal pages - and you're really helping people make the transition to adulthood.

Finally, this seems like it could be an almost Union Hall situation. Looking to hire? Check out MyLife first - there's a pool of applicants who have their shit together, don't need health benefits, etc.

Posted by: JRoth | Nov 29, 2006 10:09:11 AM


I understand your concerns, but I think the alternative - as in my case - is NO coverage/care for the vast majority of 18-34 year olds. And the effect of that is bad for them and for the rest of us. Even if they're in a separate pool, they're still paying cash into the system that isn't being paid right now at all.

It occurs to me that the coexistence of this with unions helps - basically, it's a package deal for the insurers, where, in simplistic terms, they are offering 2 plans, one with light coverage for the young, and one with full coverage for the full spectrum of union employees (including young & old). And maybe that's the transition - if you're in MyLife, you can transition at any time to the SEIU coverage. They can't bounce you for preexisting conditions. Even healthy people, as they hit their 30s (esp. if kids are involved), want better coverage, so they'll start transitioning while they remain low-risk, making the $$s work better.

Posted by: JRoth | Nov 29, 2006 10:16:33 AM

I am absolutely jazzed by Stern's proposal as outlined.

However . . .

Apart from the fracturing of the health plan risk pool that Avedon correctly points out (and Ezra later responds to), there's also the potential for adverse selection, whereby such a program eventually becomes attractive only to those who most need and use it, making its costs rise to the point where healthy people drop out.

Since Stern suggests an organization that crosses state boundaries, we have to avoid it morphing into Association Health Plans or MEWAs, the past iteration of AHPs that flopped because of just such a pattern of adverse selection that bankrupted nearly all of them and scandalized a few of them.

I like Stern's model of an AARP For Young People, which suggests that it becomes a kind of buyer's club for already-existing private-sector services. That has real legs.

Posted by: Rick | Nov 29, 2006 10:16:49 AM

Here's some ideas:

-There's already MySpace and Facebook, and SEIU won't be able to compete with them. So don't try. Make something that looks and functions differently. It's professional social networking.

-Set it up so that anyone who uploads their resume to My Life can choose to have it automatically sent to Monster, Yahoo!, CareerBuilder, etc. Try to put as many of these sites' tools within the My Space interface, so that instead of needing to check 3 or 4 online job websites, users can just connect to My Life and check them all at once.

-If there's going to be tips on resumes, interviewing and the like, please don't make them dumb. Dumb they can get off Monster. Hell, offer a cheap resume writing service.

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 29, 2006 10:19:43 AM

but then, I'm an old fogey of 34, and I think myspace is stupid.


Here's to being a fogey. 34! Woot!

Posted by: Stephen | Nov 29, 2006 10:22:37 AM

Is this even legal?

I mean, the idea of a health insurance policy restricted to 18-34 year olds seems so screaming obvious*, and when something is screaming obvious but doesn't actually exist in the market despite decades of opportunity for someone to introduce such a product, one suspects the law.

Then again, you'd think Stern would have already done his homework on this point.

* As others have mentioned, the departure of this age group from the health insurance pools screws over every one else, so one might not choose to call the product a good for society as a whole. But the plan would certainly be a good for both its customers as well as the insurers, who would be able to target a dirt-cheap-to-cover demographic.

Posted by: Bertie | Nov 29, 2006 10:23:40 AM

I already suggested some de facto mechanisms for self-selection by age, but I do wonder about Bertie's points on de jure limitations. Is it true that AARP is technically open to everyone? I feel like I heard that once. But then, age discrimination is only illegal in certain contexts - senior discounts are certainly universal.

So if some age-based differentiation is legal, then presumably everyone has to officially sign up for MyLife, 18-34YOs only. Then you can get in the pool.

But see my comment over at Ezra's other post for why this might not screw over the larger pool.

Posted by: JRoth | Nov 29, 2006 10:39:13 AM

There actually is an existing organization that does something like this. It's used to be called Working Today; now they're called the Freelancers Union and they represent independent workers, such as independent contractors, consultants, temps, etc.

The Union offers its members health and other types of insurance, as well as discounts, information, and support services. They also advocate for public policies that improve the lives of workers. You can visit their website here: http://www.freelancersunion.org

Membership in the union is open to pretty much anyone; however, to be eligible for insurance, you have to meet certain criteria. Also, as of now health insurance is available only in the New York area, though they're working on bringing it elsewhere.

Posted by: kaygee | Nov 29, 2006 10:43:50 AM

While I certainly qualify as a "fogey", I have pretty strong feelings on this subject since I just recently quit my long-time IT/web-commerce job to embark on a Career 2.0 search and had to seek individual health insurance for the first time in my life.

I quickly became convinced of something I had long-suspected: that insurance is simply the wrong model to deliver health care. Think about it: you can only qualify for health insurance if you don't actually need it (i.e. no "pre-existing conditions").

Insurance, by definition, is based on an actuarial approach: calculate the risk/amount of health services each individual is statistically likely to need, then price the coverage to that cost, plus administative overhead, plus profit.

Any approach that doesn't start with the concept of including all citizens in the coverage pool is doomed to sliding down the slippery slope of needing to discriminate (either in price or in eligibility) against those who actually need health care the most: dumb idea and morally indefensible!

Yes, if you're young and healthy, you and your peers could theoretically form a large enough pool to dodge the actuarial bullet, for a while. But, as others have pointed out, you will eventually fall out of the pool, if for no other reason than aging. But I would postulate a more fundamental reason to oppose this kind of proposal: the moral imperative. Taking refuge in a temporary actuarial advantage such as age is a morally indefensible position. We should all realize that access to health care is a fundamental human right and seek a system that meets that need in a fair and cost-effective manner, not succumb to the temptation to gain a short-term financial advantage based on individual circumstance (age).

Support those in Congress and your state legislature who are pushing for some form of universal health insurance. Don't be swayed by stale rhetorical attacks on "socialised medicine". Look into the health plan enjoyed by the US Cogress, and ask your Senators and Representative why that pool can't simply be enlarged to cover the entire US population (the approach proposed by my congresswoman). And as a side-effect bonus, such a proposal could relieve you of the portion of the payroll tax that currently funds Medicare!


Posted by: Larry Walker | Nov 29, 2006 10:52:20 AM

You could always join a small business organization that buys benefits at a group rate. They usually get much better health insurance rates than individuals can. Though they're targeted towards freelancers and small business owners, most of them let anyone join.

Posted by: Madame Defarge | Nov 29, 2006 11:01:47 AM

Boy. I do see a lot of pitfalls with this, not the least that, as someone pointed out, concentrating that low-risk group is going to drive up insurance costs for everyone else.

This is just nibbling around the edges of the REAL problem - naming, the compelling need for government-funded universal health coverage.

Posted by: Susie from Philly | Nov 29, 2006 11:05:36 AM

Great idea but what about those of us on the north side of 35?

Posted by: fiat lux | Nov 29, 2006 11:14:18 AM

Maybe this is a part of the credit union aspect of the project, but I can imagine attracting a lot of us youths with a credit card that's not quite as usurious and exploitative as the regular offerings -- i.e. no sudden and unannounced (except in the fine print) rate increases, negligible rather punitive late fees, etc.

I can imagine the tag line: "Union Visa -- we won't screw you as badly as the other guys do."

Credit card debt seems like an issue that has a lot of relevance to the young folk. I also wonder whether there's some killer app out there that would make unions seem not just ideologically healthy -- the broccoli of social justice movements -- but actually sort of cool. Maybe a Union-brand clothing line, which taps into the whole proletarian/industrial chic thing. Or free music downloads, contributed by progressive musicians, that you can get if you're willing to join the union-sponsored network.

Maybe you can't reverse engineer these kinds of things, but it seems to me as if there's still some reservoir of symbolic cultural authenticity that unions could draw on to attract at least the nominal, symbolic support of young people.

Posted by: Daniel | Nov 29, 2006 11:44:28 AM

Those of us on the north side of 35--been there for quite a while myself--know that this is nothing new; I bought my family's health insurance during a couple years of consulting (age ca. 42-43) through a union plan.

It's a great idea, and it already works at the margin. Targeting the generally-healthy crowd has the added advantage of making the cost relatively low. (As to Avedon's "this is available labour" worry, it's not so much available labour as people who have decoupled their health insurance from their job, who also would not have to marry in haste.)

Posted by: Ken Houghton | Nov 29, 2006 11:47:48 AM

I love the credit card idea by Daniel at 8:44. I don't know much about health insurance, but it seems to me that such a plan wouldn't capsize everybody else's insurance - young people who are eligible for good coverage through school or work may continue to take advantage of that, while the massive amount of young people who aren't insured at all because their work doesn't offer it would buy in. More total money into the system...I agree.

It seems to me that young people don't necessarily see the relevance of unions to our lives right now, and this would introduce the concept to a lot of people. That might lead to those people acting as leaders in unionizing their eventual workplaces.

And I don't think a plan like this has to preclude large-scale political activism for universal health coverage. That's clearly the eventual goal - but for now, it's pretty dangerous for so many twentysomethings to be running around without coverage. As a 23-yr-old I definitely can say it affects the plans you make for your career. (Some people I know have gone back to school just to avoid the issue...others have gotten married for the same reason!)

Posted by: Lethe | Nov 29, 2006 12:37:10 PM

I think Stern's got a good idea (the health insurance part, at least), but I think the Dems in Congress could take this idea and run with it in the correct direction toward universal coverage.

Why not establish a Medicare Part "E" (for entrance or early), that allows individuals to pay their own premiums directly through withholding from pay or by separate payment, with the cash going into a Medicare E government account, that would fund the coverage. The "E" option would cover those things that Part A, Part B and Part C currently cover: hospitalization, doctor fees and prescription drugs.

It could be designed to cover Stern's age group at first, or it could be designed for all who are below Medicare Part A/B/C eligible age (less than 65).

The risk pool for Part "E" would be large and it wouldn't halt at some age (like Stern's plan).

Perhaps the premiums could be stratified by age groups (18-30, 31-45, 46 to 64) to reflect actual outlays somewhat (with perhaps a floor payment that would do some cross-subsidy of the various age groups so that premiums wouldn't hugely jump when the boundaries are crossed.)

Let's get bold as Dems. It is time to provide "optional" government-based health insurance for the rest of the population, and this would be a good way to do it. If busineses wanted to shift their employees into the plan (replacing current coverage), they could do so, perhaps contributing some portion of the premiums, once again as an option for the business.

The key here is 'option'. Let's offer the option for a national plan. If many adopt it, and learn to love it like Medicare, then momentum may build to make it mandatory down the line.

Let's NOT let the private insurance companies get a permanent foothold into the market for those who are currently under-insured or non-insured.

Who can complain about an optional government program?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 29, 2006 1:47:22 PM

Just realized I left this comment in the wrong thread originally:

Stern is proving again that he's a bit of a visionary. My understanding is that SEIU is negotiating new contracts that will have health insurance run through SEIU. Turning SEIU into a giant insurance agent is a fairly ingenius way of defusing a significant roadblock to health care for all. Expanding beyond SEIU-represented employees through community affiliates is an additional great idea.

What I'd recommend, though, is that Stern keep a few things in mind while building My Life (full disclosure: I'm a bit biased as someone who has spent the last couple years helping build a young people's non-profit in Montana). One of the reasons unions are successful is because they present themselves regularly in people's lives. They don't just have national organizations. They have locals. And the whole system also works more or less democratically, with local elected leaders establishing priorities, etc., etc.

There are already young people's groups trying to form at the grassroots level. Working with them is something I think SEIU could do effectively and would bolster operations on both ends. It would help build an infrastructure that could be truly grassroots in some places and that could eventually fund additional organizing elsewhere.

The only other thing I'd recommend is finding ways to extend beyond the simple services model. Or at least, thinking seriously about what services drive youth interest the most seriously. AARP succeeds not just through insurance plans, but through discounts.

I'm sure the folks at SEIU are already thinking about this stuff and it's great to see such a heavyweight discussing these items.

Posted by: Matt Singer | Nov 29, 2006 2:10:55 PM

I've thought for a long time there was a great organizing opportunity in credit counseling--helping people get out of debt, and harnessing the frustration they collectively feel in being part of a system that's rigged against them (bankruptcy bill, anyone) into effective collective action--political or otherwise.

Stern is brilliant. There's a reason he splintered off into a group called "change to win." Unions need to change--go back to their roots, and be reactive to the needs of the workers in a changing workplace. He knows this.

Posted by: theorajones | Nov 29, 2006 3:26:09 PM

I'd definitely like to see various forums devoted to different topics. I'd also like to see them divided by location, at least in some instances, like on Craig's list. Wages and cost of living just aren't comperable in Montana and Los Angeles. Though a wage/cost of living calculator - one that takes in your income or expenses in state X and spits out an corresponding number in state y - would be really cool.

Like credit card debt, student loans really plague young professionals. I'm not exactly sure what the site could do to help with the problem, other than give helpful tips, but if it could help in any substantive way it would attract millions of users instantly.

Also, it could help with those first time activities that are difficult as a consumer. Getting car insurance, investing some income, opening a retirement fund, doing your own taxes, buying a house or renting an apartment. Nothing fancy, just tips on what kind of stuff to watch out for and step by step instructions so you don't have to rely on somebody else.

Posted by: Mavis Beacon | Nov 29, 2006 4:23:47 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.