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Essay: Youth Unemployment

Posted by Will Rice (will) on Aug 05 2011 at 1:03 PM
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By Aaron Goldstein, Jeffrey Raines, and Andrew Terrell

As more and more Millennial Generation college graduates like us enter an increasingly unwelcoming job market each year, thoughts turn to an earlier economic crisis and its effect on young workers.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reported “moments of real terror when I think we might be losing this generation.”

To be fair, the First Lady lived amidst, in the words of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “one-third of a nation” experiencing acute physical want; as bad as today’s Great Recession is, the level of suffering—thanks in no small part to Roosevelt reforms—is not the same.  But today’s sustained unemployment is the worst since FDR’s time, as is joblessness among young Americans.

We in the Millennial Generation (roughly defined as those born between 1980 and 2000) face peculiar challenges in trying to get our first foot on the job ladder. The Great Recession pits recent graduates against Gen X’ers with graduate degrees and Baby Boomers with decades of experience.  The downturn has been so severe that even dead-end McJobs that were once a reliable if unrewarding fallback are no longer a sure thing.    

Not only do recent graduates face bleak employment prospects, but they carry an average of $22,900 in student debt, the highest level ever recorded. This while wages (among those lucky enough to get a job) are largely stagnant. Is it surprising that this is the first American generation whose members believe their quality of life
will be lower than their parents?

But Millennials are not sitting idly by, simply allowing the recession to happen to them. We are a generation of change, progress, and innovation and we’re using those core strengths in our quest for meaningful employment. 

As the first generation of “Digital Natives,” we’re at home using resources like social media to create relationships, businesses, organizations, movements.  Since so much online is free or nearly so, it never occurs to us to let a lack of money stop us from pursuing our dreams or exploiting an opportunity.

There are offline resources, as well. One is the Promise Program, which offers economic development through access to higher education.

Promise Programs assure students, starting at a young age, that if they succeed academically they will be able to attend college.  Whether funded through a few very generous individuals or more broad-based campaigns, communities from Pittsburgh to El Dorado, AR, to Kalamazoo, MI, are establishing these important pacts with young people.  Yale University has partnered with its local community to establish a Promise Program in New Haven, CT.

Though less experienced and bearing fewer advanced degrees than our Baby Boomer and Gen X predecessors, we Millennials still have much to contribute to the economy...and society. After all, it was our generation that provided much of the excitement and volunteer labor–as well as an uncharacteristically high youth voter turnout–for the Obama campaign in 2008. As a result, politicians have recognized our potential impact on elections and public policy.  With the help of initiatives like the Promise Program, we’ll soon be demonstrating our influence on the economy as well.

Aaron Goldstein and Jeff Raines are the President and Vice President of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network at American University in Washington; Andrew Terrell is an aide at Americans for Democratic Action.