Youth in the Great Recession


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I guess this is what the jobless recovery looks like.

The national unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent in November. In fact, the unemployment rate has stood at or above 9 percent for 19-straight months — the longest streak of high unemployment since 1948. There are an estimated five unemployed for every one job available.

November's job report makes it even more evident that the economy is dismal. Well, all for except Wall Street and corporate America, which are reaping in record profits.

Even for those who are able to find employment, their economic outlook isn't looking encouraging. The country has an unemployment problem, and it has become stricken with a case of malemployment as well. Recent college graduates in particular, are likely to face bouts of malemployment — the mismatch between college skills and real-world work.

You probably know someone whose condition fits this description: history majors who now find themselves delivering pizza. The comparative literature and dance double major who graduated with hopes of moving to New York City and landing a cushy job with a top-notch publishing company who now scrapes by on tips.

Maybe you've secretly accepted that after graduation you, too, will be consigned to a similar fate, working for a couple of months — or possibly a year — at a job that has nothing to do with your degree or interests. (Student-loan notices arrive promptly in the mail six months after graduation.)

Andrew Sum, a professor of economics at Northeastern University, describes this as "hidden employment." In a recent PBS "Newshour" report, he said, "Nearly half of all young college graduates — I'm talking about B.A.-holders 25 and under — only half of them are working in jobs that require college degrees. The rest of them are working in jobs that either don't — do not require a degree — or not working at all. On average, by the way, their salary is 40 percent less than a college graduate who is in a job that requires a college degree."

The burdens that the Great Recession has created are not being shared evenly either. Along with blue-collar workers, low-income minorities, and young people (under 30) have fared the worst over the last three years. Youths have experienced rising joblessness, underemployment, and malemployment. Sum found that during the January-August period, fewer than 50 out of very young B.A. holders held a job requiring a college degree.

It is still true that college graduates earn more over the course of their lifetimes than non-college grads. But our expectation of a smooth transition from college into the workforce and adulthood is increasingly anachronistic. The same PBS report also found that between 2000 and 2009, inflation-adjusted earnings for graduates with only bachelor's degrees actually fell by 15 percent. During that time, tuition at public colleges rose by 60 percent and by 30 percent at private colleges. On average, graduates in 2009 owed an alarming $24,000 in debt.

It's more likely postgraduate life will be defined by fits and starts. Maybe a stint at home with the parents or forbearance on a loan. Delaying marriage into the late 20s or early 30s. These lifestyle choices are made out of necessity. Finding meaningful work that pays well is difficult. The recession has made it nearly impossible.

Of course, students who majored in such fields as engineering, business, and the computer sciences are faring better than the rest of us. We can't all be chemical engineers, though. (Would that even be desirable?)

It's popular to look askance at government these days. Yet the economy needs another dose of energetic government. Young people, with and without jobs, do too.

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