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:
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.