Generation Recession | The Nation


Generation Recession

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About the Author

Lizzy Ratner
Lizzy Ratner is a senior editor at The Nation, where she oversees the Cities Rising series. 

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These are not happy days for America's young and striving, Lizzy Ratner found. Young people have lost 2.5 million jobs to the crisis, making them the hardest-hit age group. If you're 18 to 35 years old, The Nation wants to know: how has the recession impacted you? Share your story in the form provided here.

When David Thyme was an even younger man than he is today, his fantasies of early adulthood did not include a 9:30 pm curfew and a bed in Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth. Then again, they also didn't include a recession so severe that his financially strapped father would ask him to help with rent--or that when he couldn't find an entry-level job to do so, his father would ask him to leave home. "He was like, Son, you got to do what you got to do. I can't have you in my house," recalled the thin-faced 18-year-old from the Bronx.

Shawn Bolden, an earnest 23-year-old from Harlem, also nursed a different vision of his youthful years. A graduate of Monroe College with a degree in criminal justice, he imagined dedicating his days to nurturing the minds of the next generation of neglected students, doing his part to solder shut the school-to-prison pipeline. But since losing his job teaching arts and college prep at a local nonprofit in June, he's been struggling to find his way back into the classroom, all the while worrying about feeding his newborn daughter.

And then there's Charles Channon. A 25-year-old graduate of George Washington University, he dreamed that his postcollege days would be devoted to an onward-and-upward career with an international development firm--or at least a job with which to pay off $65,000 in college debt. "I wouldn't pretend that there's absolutely no conceit in me, but I do want to get out there and make the best difference I can," he said.

So much for youthful fantasies.

These are not happy days for America's young and striving. Indeed, as the economy has rocked and tumbled its way through 2009, spewing jobs like a sea-sick tourist, these have become very, very bad days. In September, the unemployment rate for people between the ages of 16 and 24 hovered morosely at 18.1 percent, nearly double the national average for that month. At the same time, the actual employment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds dropped to a startling 46 percent, the grimmest such figure on record since 1948, the year the government began keeping track. Taken together, this same group of young people has lost more than 2.5 million jobs since the economy began deflating in December 2007, roughly one-third of all the jobs lost, making them the hardest-hit age group of the recession.

And it gets bleaker. Bad as the youth unemployment numbers are, the underemployment numbers are even more distressing, with young people once again taking the hit. During the second quarter of 2009, for instance, the underemployment rate for workers under 25 was an alarming 31.9 percent; for workers between 25 and 34 the underemployment rate was 17.1 percent.

All of which suggests that for all this country's unbridled fascination with the glories of youth; for all the teen-lusting TV dramas, wunderkind "it" kids and peewee tech moguls, to say nothing of all the industries built on making the rest of us look and feel teen-queen young--being a member of today's youth explosion isn't a particularly enviable position after all.

"Young people under 30 have been far more affected than other groups in the economy during the recession," says Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. "And the younger you are, the worse off you've been."

The reasons for this are multiple and complex, but perhaps the one that young people cite most is their desperate new job competition: adults twice their age with college degrees and decades of experience are now applying for entry-level positions. Moreover, those young people lucky enough to have found work often fall prey to the old "last hired, first fired" syndrome, putting them right back where they started. The result is that young people are not only working less than at any time since the Great Depression but could suffer the consequences deep into their individual and collective futures.

"These effects are long-lasting; they're not short and measly-lasting," explains Sum, citing several studies suggesting that a slow employment start can have long-term consequences. In the case of white male college graduates, for instance, an influential study showed that for as long as fifteen years after college, those who graduated into the recession-rocked economy of the early 1980s earned less than those who graduated into a sunny employment market. Equally disturbing: those who work only part time when younger, as so many young people must now do, see little benefit to their future wages compared with those working full time.

"We are throwing out of the labor market those kids who will benefit the most from the work experience they get, and they will lose that for the rest of their lives," Sum warns. "That's why it really is a depression for young workers. And I don't use that word lightly."

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