Thankfully, there's something of a pewter lining surrounding all this bleakness: not only are certain swaths of this generation among the most politically engaged in decades but the generation's politics in general trend decidedly toward the progressive. Indeed, many young people have already begun coming together, in protest and coalition-style advocacy, to push for everything from green jobs to increased bank regulation to state budgets that aren't balanced on students' backs (thank you, University of California protesters!).
This is promising, since the list of much-needed solutions to young people's recession problems is long and daunting--beginning, many researchers agree, with the need to create more jobs: green jobs, Job Corps jobs, public works jobs, even tax credit-induced jobs. However, these can't be just any old jobs; they must be jobs targeted toward young people, jobs for which employers are induced to hire the youthful, inexperienced and most vulnerable, because, as Sum says, "Very few kids are being hired by the stimulus." His solution: pull them into the workforce either through direct job creation, partial subsidies or targeted tax credits to youth-hiring businesses. Moreover, he advises, these jobs also must last longer than a brief six- to twelve-week summer fling. That's how long the roughly 284,000 summer youth jobs funded by the stimulus lasted, even though there is almost no evidence that a quickie summer job has any lingering effect on a young person's long-term prospects--though there is evidence that summer jobs that extend into longer-term employment help quite a bit, according to Sum.
But above all, these new jobs have to be far more plentiful and ambitious in scope than the ones created thus far, not the least because it will take years for the country to crawl out of the vast employment hole, roughly 10.7 million jobs deep, created by this recession. And while 284,000 summer youth jobs certainly represent an important start, they not only don't meet the current need but seem downright piddling compared with the nearly 1 million government-sponsored summer youth jobs that existed during the late 1970s.
"This is classic of Obama's situation: Obama can double something or increase it 100 percent from the previous administration, but it's still so insignificant to the problem," explains Dedrick Muhammad. By contrast, he observes, "Wall Street's booming because the government took seriously their problems and did a massive intervention."
Of course, even if a slew of youth jobs materialized overnight, it would only be the beginning, since, as Cauthen cautions, "the recession could end tomorrow and that's not necessarily going to mean a bright future for young people." For that, she and others have argued, this generation needs more systemic, probing change, including easier access to the protection of unions in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act, more affordable health insurance in the form of universal health coverage, childcare that doesn't decimate their paychecks. And that's just for starters. With these policies in place, the rising generation still has a chance at the starry future that's been predicted for it. Without them, well, just imagine the way things are now--and then extrapolate.
Two recent events in New York City illustrate the way the world is trending for two very different groups of young people--the young and bailed-out versus the young and bailed-on. The first took place amid the brick-and-ivy greenery of Columbia University, in the world of the bailed-out. It was mid-September, and several hundred college students had packed into the school's Faculty House for an intimate evening with a team of Goldman Sachs recruiters. A year earlier, these recruiters probably seemed like a dying species, a herd of expensively dressed mastodons taking their valedictory spin, while the sober-suited students must have looked almost pitiable. But on this evening, the recruiters looked very much alive--downright brash--as they wooed the standing-room-only crowd of eager if anxious-looking students. Clutching brochures that urged them to "make the most of your talent," these students listened in unblinking awe as the recruiters spoke of their bank's "competitive advantage," its "global impact," the golden "opportunity" that awaited all Goldman employees, old and young.
And in case the students missed the point, there was a promotional video, starring a comely squad of young analysts (all programmed, it seemed, to repeat the word "unique!"), that ended with the cultish mantra, "I believe, I believe, I believe in Goldman Sachs." It was as if it were 2006, not 2009, as if the good old days of overpaid young analysts with Town Cars and expense accounts were back again--which, thanks to the government, they essentially are.
"If you do well and you're ambitious, you really can do well," a handsome young trader of mortgage-backed securities promised a throng of students who'd gathered around him for advice.
Meanwile, several weeks earlier, in a part of town not touched by bank bailouts, a very different scene played itself out in a Covenant House conference room. There, nine homeless New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 20--among them, David Thyme--huddled around a table topped with pizza and soda and shared their failed attempts at finding a job. All of them wanted one, but none had managed to find one despite months of scratching at the closed doors of just about every fast-food, retail and service joint in town. According to Jerome Kilbane, Covenant House New York's executive director, the organization's job training program has placed 40 percent fewer young people over the past year.
"It's kind of discouraging when you go out and you come back empty-handed every day," said Samantha, a serious-faced 19-year-old who dreams of becoming a physical therapist someday but is currently so strapped for cash she can barely afford a MetroCard to look for a job.
"I feel if I had a job I wouldn't be here," added Leonda, who is charismatic, chatty and also 19. "Not to say that this is a horrible place, but I'd be able to stand on my own two feet and live as an adult and be me."
Samantha and Leonda, who are part of a wave of homeless young folks that has swollen the ranks of Covenant House's residents by 25 percent, expressed deep anxiety about their future. But they also knew their worth. When asked what they wanted to tell the people in power, Samantha didn't hesitate.
"I say, We are your future. If we don't make it now, then who's going to take care of you when y'all is in y'all retirement phase?" she asked. "If we don't make it out of this, then basically the whole world don't make it out of this."