The Young and the Jobless 

Idaho youth struggle with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation

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While Grantham's gumption helped her navigate a potentially disastrous employment situation, there are solid figures to back up the feeling that the deck really is stacked against younger workers.

As the Baby Boomer generation has aged, it has adapted the marketplace--and the policies that govern it--to its needs.

That fact was starkly revealed in a Pew Research Center study released last November: median net worth (all assets minus all debts) of households headed by an adult 65 or older rose 42 percent from 1984 to 2009. During the same 25-year period, the median net worth of households headed by an adult younger than 35 fell 68 percent.

"As a result of these divergent trends, in 2009, the typical household headed by the older adult had $170,494 in net worth, compared with just $3,662 for the typical household headed by the younger adult," the study reported. "People generally accumulate wealth as they age, so it is not unusual to find large, age-based gaps on this measure. However, the current gap is unprecedented."

Referring to this vast transfer of wealth from the young to the old as the result of America's burgeoning "gerontocracy," journalist Stephen Marche marshaled a slew of grim facts and figures for an Esquire magazine piece titled "The War Against Youth," published in March.

Drawing on data culled from Pew, the Urban Institute, the Project on Student Debt, the Brookings Institution and various other urban studies and national education sources, Marche noted that shrinking earnings and a drought of jobs have driven one in four young Americans back to their parents' homes, while one in three have postponed marrying and one in five have delayed starting a family.

At the same time as average student loan debt has risen to more than $25,000 and public debt per American has risen to $33,777, the federal government now spends $2.40 on the elderly for every $1 it spends on a child.

Just as government policy has inexorably disinvested in youth over the past few decades, the wage structure for entry-level jobs has taken a nosedive. According to the Economic Policy Institute, entry-level pay for every group, regardless of education, fell dramatically from 2000 to 2011, with wages for high school-educated workers falling between 9 percent and 9.2 percent during the period.

The problem is so severe that Idaho is losing highly skilled, well-educated young people to other markets. Case in point: Arthur Benjamin, a native of Iron Mountain, Mich., who graduated with a psychology degree from the College of Idaho in 2007 and went on to work as a corporate recruiter in Hailey--that is, until he was laid off in August 2008. From there, it was a series of part-time jobs, including auto traffic counting and nude modeling, followed by a second bachelor's degree, this time from Boise State in economics.

One unpaid internship later (with a local commercial real estate brokerage), Benjamin graduated in 2009 but didn't land a job until March 2010 as a collector at CitiBank.

"So at that point, I have two degrees--one in a 'hard' discipline--and [I'm] making $22,000 a year, driving my parents' and my girlfriend's car because I can't afford a reliable one," he said.

Realizing that his situation wasn't tenable, Benjamin opted to skip the state altogether, enrolling in a full-time MBA program in Chicago, which he just finished (though he's now back on the job hunt).

"Employment is somewhat easier out of state," he said, adding that fellow C of I classmates have had similar experiences--notably, one friend who graduated cum laude in mathematics but found himself scraping by on $13 an hour. That 'Yote ended up pulling up stakes for Indiana and a master's in actuarial science. "The low wages are what make it rough," he said.

Besides economic pain, members of the Screwed Generation are also suffering emotional trauma: With employment opportunities drying up, debt increasing and wages falling, young Americans are increasingly questioning their futures.

According to a workforce trends report issued in June by the Rutgers University Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, 39 percent of those surveyed said they are no longer taking college classes full-time because they can't afford the cost. Meanwhile, 34 percent of respondents reported that they were not planning to attend college at all because of finances.

Eschewing college in favor of work was the most typically reported circumstance: 30 percent said they were no longer taking full-time courses because of the need to work while 37 percent said they would not attend college at all because of employment.

An overriding pessimism among youth has been the result of the current economic climate. According to the study, 61 percent of high-school students said they felt less prepared to work than the generation that came before them. Only 17 percent said they felt better prepared for the work place. Similarly, high-school and college grads alike are expecting to enjoy less long-term financial success than their parents, with 56 percent of high-school graduates and 61 percent of college graduates assuming they will be less well off.

As Marche writes in Esquire: "The situation is obviously unsustainable: At the exact moment when the United States and all other Western countries are trying to deal with aging populations, they are failing to capture the energy and potential of the people who will have to work to support those aging populations. We have arrived at a moment, just before the 2012 election, in which the hedges, the corner-cuts, the isolated decisions about young people from a host of institutions have accrued to the point of a continuous catastrophe. The question rises from the wreckage: How long can we eat the young?"

That's an open question among labor market experts in Idaho.

"With adults, a lot of times when you're going in to get a job, you have proof of how well you've done in the past; with youth it's, 'All I've got is me.' Employers at this point don't want to take a chance--they don't have to take a chance," said Burnett. "For employers, they're just doing what comes natural. ... I think it will correct itself, though. I think it just cycles and things change.

"I do think there's going to be some pent-up employment that needs to be filled, and then we're going to see unemployment just ratchet down a few degrees," Roeser said. "Whether that happens in 2012, 2013, 2014, I'm not sure. It's not all that dour, but it does seem that way."

"It's just a different scenario to be in," added Phillips. "We live in a time when education is still very important, but it doesn't carry the same assurances that it used to. It's hard to blame them for an environment they live in. It's just their reality."

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