The Unemployed Generation

I am now thirty-six years old. That means that I really cannot qualify as “young” anymore. Monickers such as “younger than…” might still apply, but on the other side of thirty-five, the single designation “young” is inappropriate. I mention this because I am very lucky to count among my friends a good number of people on the other side of that divide. People who are inarguably still young, by any reasonable measure. And among my friends of the generation(ish) following mine, a single issue stalks their lives and decision-making:

Employment.

Of all the cohorts that the Great Recession pummeled, none were hit harder than young people. Indeed, beyond just the anecdotal evidence of friends moving back in with their parents after graduating from some of the best schools (and grad schools!) in the country, the statistics on unemployment among twenty-somethings are frightening. Even as slightly older workers (like me) find jobs and their unemployment rate creeps below 8%, people aged 20 to 24 see a stubborn unemployment rate of 15%. And that rate has stayed high for years. Students have gone through four or eight years of college without seeing any improvement in the economy for themselves when they graduate. And the news is even worse for those who didn’t go to college.

In 2009 and early 2010, it was chic to write articles about this new lost generation. Eighteen months later, their prospects aren’t any better, but they’re no longer good copy. More than lost, they’ve become forgotten – not even worth reporting about.

It will be impossible for America to address its myriad challenges without first, and foremost, putting the generation who will deal with whatever solutions we implement on a solid economic footing. And that means creating and sustaining good jobs for people who have entered the workforce in the past ten years.

I entered the workforce in the midst of the greatest economy in forty years. That first job I got by the skin of my teeth; I having had truly weak interviewing skills at 22. Even so, I found a “tech job” that actually used some of the skills my Government degree afforded me, and have been able to craft a career from that first opportunity.

Individual careers for most people have a remarkable amount of path dependence: Where and how you start your career is the single-biggest predictor of where and how you will end your career. That doesn’t mean you’ll be with the same company, but it’s a good bet you’ll stay in the same field. Similarly, the salary/wage you draw at your first job has a lock-in effect throughout your career as employers make requesting a salary history ever more standard as part of the job application process.

When you add these factors to the fact that once you’ve been unemployed for about six months, employers consider you unemployable, and you get the recipe for losing an entire American generation. And we must not let that happen.

The generation whose economic prospects we are sacrificing on the altar of efficiency and austerity is the generation who will be making the final decisions about the Baby Boom. It is the generation who will be responsible for addressing those crises predicted for the U.S. in the 2030s. It is this generation who will deal with the after effects of the longest wars (simultaneous and plural) in U.S. history, because it is this generation that is fighting them, the U.S. military being one of the few remaining solid job prospects available to them.

But even absent the impetus that emerges from future timelines, this is the generation to whom so much was promised. When the Republican Revolution of 1994 swept into power, it was all done in the name of “the children and their future.” The children unemployed today, and underemployed today, are those children! Lower taxes and fewer regulations were supposed to have created an economic utopia for children coming of age right now. That did not happen.

It is imperative that our leaders, today, fulfill those promises to these young people. It is imperative that we create the conditions, using government policy as we must, for recent graduates to find good, well-paying jobs that will sustain them – and with them, all of us – for decades to come.

None of us, and neither our nation, can afford another lost, unemployed generation.

9 thoughts on “The Unemployed Generation

  1. Stevens R. Miller

    That’s a lot to ponder. I think, however, that part of the solution lies in thinking about the assumptions that might be behind the reason you added this:

    “And the news is even worse for those who didn’t go to college.”

    I don’t think I care at all, anymore, when making a hiring decision, about whether or not the person went to college. When hiring a computer system administrator, for example (something I last did in 1999), if someone says, “I just finished four years of college and have a bachelor’s in computer science,” while another person says, “I just spent the last four years as a computer system administrator, but I never went to college,” I’m probably going to prefer the second applicant over the first.

    Yet, we continue to assume that college make a person a better candidate for a job. (More likely, we are quietly assuming that, if a person wasn’t college material, they’re probably too intellectually feeble to hire.) Last I heard, college tuition was, more or less, $20,000 per year. Add in the other costs of just living for four years and you are looking at a crushing debt load for families to carry, all on the theory that, somehow, having read Eudora Welty, having studied the Milgram Experiment, and having learned that when Einstein got the Nobel Prize, it was explicitly not for his work on relativity, will make a person a better employee.

    I know that’s not true. I have a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a law degree. Not long ago, my wife (who had no college degree then) was making more than I was, because she had mastered some useful skills that were valued in the commercial marketplace. Three years ago, she completed a bachelor’s degree at GMU. She learned a great deal, but is making slightly less now than she was when she started (bad economies get to us all). To be quite honest, her value to her employer was probably not enhanced by her studies. She did learn things, but they weren’t the kinds of things that get you a raise, dig?

    Now, of course, we like to think college does more than teach a student a trade. “College prepares you for life” is what most of us in my generation grew up hearing. Well, that’s bull. Only things I learned in college were how to sabotage a salt-shaker and seven different ways to throw a frisbee. Yes, I did get a degree. In physics. With honors, even. So? Last I heard, a bachelor’s in physics and two bucks will get a guy a latte. I don’t even like latte.

    I probably failed to recognize, much less make any use of, some fine opportunities to improve my mind in college. I spent a lot of time playing games with my friends and teaching myself how to program the antique computer we had on campus, (Good thing I did that, too, as I would have had no marketable skills at all if I hadn’t.) So, I suppose college could have prepared me for something, and I just didn’t let it, or want it to.

    Twenty years after most people finish school, my wife got her college degree. When she went to class, she went for the sake of learning something she didn’t know, not to pass a test, nor even to learn a trade. Just to learn. Her decades of voracious reading had long ago given her respect for the intellectual process. Unlike me, her college years added to her being. All because, as she put it to me one day, “Life prepares you for college.”

    Our economy is faltering as we continue to pretend that a college education is worth the quarter-million bucks it collectively costs, and worthy of the fact that it keeps productive people cloistered in its towers for four years, away from any place where they might do something useful.

    It may sound silly, but I think time has come to ask, is higher education part of the reason we have so many unemployed?

  2. Liz Miller

    I’m guessing that the outcome of the Great Recession and the terrible job market for those just out of college is a huge upswing in masters, doctorates, and other post-secondary degrees.

    Because student loans get deferred if you’re in school, but they don’t if you’re unemployed.

  3. Paradox13

    It definitely has led to more advanced degrees, and a ton more debt. (see: http://www.leesburgtomorrow.us/2009/12/some-more-on-student-loans.html)

    As for the “you don’t need college” meme, I’ve heard that a lot. I heard it from my favorite teacher in High School twenty years ago! In each case, I’ve heard it from someone who went to college and made use of that degree, eventually. I have yet to hear it from someone who did not go to college.

    The immediate payoff of a college degree isn’t what it was, but I see that as a function of a craptastic jobs economy for young people, not an indictment of college degrees themselves. It took me a decade to really put my undergraduate degree to work, and I have found that to be true for a lot of people.

    I also think that there are folks for whom college is not the right choice, but are pushed into colleges (by the for-profit college industry in many cases). We need to create support and dignity for people making the choice to pursue trades instead of advanced education.

    The trick is, as is has always been for fifty years, getting that first decent job – be it out of college or out of high school. From that spawns everything else.

  4. Barbara Munsey

    Paradox, one thing I’d add re your remark here: “We need to create support and dignity for people making the choice to pursue trades instead of advanced education.”

    Trades DO involve an “advanced education”, in the trade! None of us would trust a car, plumbing repair, home improvement or electrical work to someone who simply owns tools and likes them.

    It may not be as much of a book-based discipline, but the trades are educated disciplines in their own right, and worthy of respect.

  5. Barbara Munsey

    Agreed on the support, dignity and respect for the trades.

    Just having a bit of a “precision of language” moment! lol

  6. Shanyn's mom

    We should ponder free education IF students commit to military or other community service (peace corps, etc) after graduation, and FREE healthcare for all students and up to one year after graduation….????

  7. Paradox13 Post author

    Yes, yes and yes. The provision in the Health Care Reform bill that allowed children to stay on their parents’ insurance until 26 is the most notable policy favoring 20-somethings accomplished in decades.

  8. Shanyn

    You’re only saying that because you want me to move out and stop leaving dirty dishes everywhere. From what I hear, nearly 85% of graduates are moving back in with their parents. What percentage of them never leave? Think about it… you do have digital cable…

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