Graduating Seniors Are About to Leap Out Into the Great Recession’s Job Abyss
Graduating high school and college seniors are now looking into the worrisome face of the Great Recession.
They’ve been overlooked by the fragile economic recovery others are experiencing. The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds averaged 18.4 percent in 2010, a new report by the Economic Policy Institute finds, compared with 9.6 percent overall. Young college grads are more than twice as likely as older grads to be jobless. It’s tough for them, but clearly college still matters: Almost a quarter of high school grads who aren’t in college—22.5 percent—are jobless. It’s even worse if you’re black or Latino.
Young people born since about 1980 make up the largest, most diverse generation in America. They’re not just competing with one another for scarce jobs. They’re competing with older, more experienced workers whose jobs have disappeared. But they’re creative—I speak with young people around the country and I’m regularly amazed. Many have been weathering the worst economy since the Great Depression with nontraditional jobs—short-term, no-benefit work rather than steady employment; and “service-oriented” internships and posts that pay stipends rather than salaries.
Economists warn, though, that this rough start into adulthood may leave lasting scars, including diminished earnings over a lifetime of work. Even the transition to adulthood is harder today—an AFL-CIO/Working America survey last year found one in three people between 18 and 35 years old still lived at home with parents because they couldn’t afford to make it on their own.
Facts like these sound an alarm bell on budget decisions being made in Washington, D.C., and in state capitals. Although the class of 2011 is in trouble, the nationwide debate is focused on cutting services for them and their families, instead of helping them get ahead.
The 2012 budget passed recently by House Republicans, for example, cuts $4.3 trillion in services while handing out $4.2 trillion in tax cuts mostly to corporations and the rich. So while reducing education funding by 25 percent and making college less affordable for about 10 million students, it does pretty much nothing to reduce the deficit young people will inherit.
By handing over massive tax gifts to the rich, that budget accomplishes what probably will be the largest transfer of income from the bottom and middle to the top of the economic food chain in America’s history. Today’s young people won’t spend adulthood in an income and wealth gap—it will be a chasm, with all the shredding of social fabric that accompanies extreme inequality.
This budget also repeals health care reform—which has enabled young people to remain covered by their parents’ insurance until the age of 26. It eliminates an estimated 1.7 million to 2.2 million jobs over two years, shrinking the already depleted job pool young people are entering. It also cuts job-creating investments in highways, bridges, transit and other infrastructure—as well as in green technologies, for which new college grads should be primed.
Not only does it leave young people with no real prospect of retirement security for themselves, it raises the question of how they’re going to help mom and dad pay for their health care when Medicare’s promised protection is gone and Medicaid’s lifeline in-home and nursing home care are whittled away.
Across the country, governors and state legislators are doing their part to rob young people of opportunity, too—from cutting jobs and taking away the bargaining rights that raise working and living standards to slashing education, forcing college tuition increases, limiting voting rights for college students and even rolling back child labor protections so employers can get more hours of work from school-age youths while paying them less. Whittled local budgets also lead analysts to believe that last year’s record absence of summer jobs for teens may be repeated in 2011.
The measure of a nation’s greatness isn’t how many millionaires or billionaires it has. Greatness isn’t measured by how much cash a country’s corporations can hoard and feed to CEOs in multi-million-dollar bonuses instead of creating jobs. It’s measured by the legacy a nation passes to its young people.
If we accept these attacks on young people rather than investing in jobs, education and training and our communities, we will fail that test miserably.
Liz Shuler is the Secretary-Treasurer of the 12 million-member AFL-CIO. She is the youngest officer ever elected and the first women to ever hold the position of Secretary-Treasurer.
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