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Generation Recession | The Nation

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Generation Recession

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JANNA BROWER

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."

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."

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."

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