This was not the graduation party that most young folks imagined when they daydreamed about their liberation into early adulthood. It's certainly not the champagne-and-streamers rager that millennial boosters and other youth gurus anticipated when they dashed off all those messianic star charts predicting that this new wave of young folks would usher in the next epoch of dreamers and do-gooder types: the next Great Generation.
And yet, bleak as the current climate is, the story behind the statistics is also far more complicated--and, in some ways, uglier--than many of the recent apocalyptic pronouncements about a "lost generation" and "dead end kids" would suggest (see BusinessWeek's October 19 cover story and the September 27 New York Post, if you dare). Certainly there are scads of lost young souls roaming the aisles of job fairs, cluttering unemployment offices and weighing whether it's more important to pay the electricity or the phone bill. But in this generation of 80-odd million, some people are far more lost than others, while some have the luxury of not being lost at all. Quite simply, the real danger of the recession is not necessarily a lost generation of unemployed millennials so much as a Swiss cheese generation where the places once occupied by the least affluent--particularly the least affluent people of color--have simply been carved out.
"I hope people are really clear that this is not an equal-opportunity recession, that it's hurting the weakest," says Dedrick Muhammad, senior organizer and research associate for the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality and the Common Good, who has done extensive research on the recession's disparate, and decidedly racial, impact on the people of this country.
Once again, the data help tell the story. As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in early October, young African-American teens between the ages of 16 and 19 have an unemployment rate of 40.7 percent, while young Latinos of the same age are unemployed at a rate of nearly 30 percent--both drastically higher than the 23 percent unemployment experienced by their white peers. Among 20- to 24-year-olds, the disparity is even more dramatic: while young white workers in their early 20s have an unemployment rate of 13.1 percent, their African-American compatriots are unemployed at the rate of 27.1 percent, more than twice as high.
Or as Sum summarizes, "If you are both low-income and black or low-income and Hispanic, you have lost the most. And if you are young, affluent and a woman, in terms of just labor market studies, you've done OK... although across the board everybody has lost."
These losses have stacked up quickly, but today's great youth crisis didn't happen overnight, the sudden result of an immaculate recession. For young workers--and in particular young, low-income and workers of color--the struggle began long ago, with the changes that began refashioning the economy as far back as the 1980s: the decline of unions; the long, slow death of manufacturing; the rise of the service economy; and the near-total disappearance of proactive government policy. The last decade in particular, with its post-dot-com recession followed by a jobless youth recovery, has been particularly bruising.
The result of all this has been that many of today's young people--again, especially the poor, those with less education and people of color--have a measurably harder road to travel than their generational elders, according to "The Economic State of Young America," a report published in spring 2008 by Demos, a New York-based research and advocacy organization. Between 1975 and 2005, for instance, the typical annual income for workers between the ages of 25 and 34 decreased across all educational brackets, with the exception of women with bachelor's degrees. Men without a high school diploma suffered most, their annual income plummeting by 34.2 percent, while men with a high school diploma or the equivalent earned the runner-up slot, with an income drop of 28.5 percent. As for women, those with less than a high school diploma, as well as those possessing just a diploma, lost less ground than their male counterparts; but then again, they're still doing worse than before and, perhaps more to the point, they still fare significantly worse than men their age.
At the same time, today's young workers have had to do more with less. College tuition rates have skyrocketed--in fact, rates for four-year public universities have more than doubled since 1980--with the unsurprising result that nearly two-thirds of students graduating from four-year colleges in 2008 left in debt. The cost of childcare now eats up as much as 10 percent of a two-parent family's income in many states (as much as 14.3 percent in Oregon). And young people between the ages of 19 and 34 are the most likely population to be uninsured--not because they don't want health benefits but because employers don't offer them. A case in point: 63.3 percent of recent high school graduates had employer-provided healthcare in 1979, whereas just 33.7 percent had it in 2004.
"What we're looking at is a situation where young people entered the recession already feeling the brunt of thirty years' worth of pretty gradual but nonetheless dramatic economic and social changes," says Nancy Cauthen, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at Demos. "The recession just made a bad situation worse."