Ideally, we’d like our young people to enter adulthood with their energy and idealism intact. Is it wrong to let them expect that if they work hard, they will succeed? Is it wrong to let them believe that they will work at all?
In September, 18 percent of people ages 16 to 24 were unemployed—nearly twice the national average for that month—and more than 30 percent were underemployed, reports Lizzy Ratner for The Nation (Nov. 4, 2009). Break it down by ethnicity, and the numbers are even more dismal: African American teens (ages 16 to 19) have a staggering unemployment rate of 41.7 percent, compared to 23.3 percent for white teens; young Latinos, 29.5 percent. In the next age bracket, ages 20 to 24, about 27 percent of African Americans are unemployed, more than twice the rate of their white peers (13.1 percent).
“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,” Ratner writes. That’s because a lack of work experience now could mean lower salaries and harder-won jobs down the line. Additionally, studies suggest that even the part-time employment some young people do manage to secure doesn’t ensure future earning power.
Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, deems the employment situation “a depression for young workers,” a term he insists he doesn’t use lightly. “We are throwing out of the labor market those kids who will benefit the most from the work experience they get,” he tells The Nation, “and they will lose that for the rest of their lives.”
To counter this disproportionate depression, Sum says, we must create jobs for young people. “Very few kids are being hired by the stimulus,” he says, unless you count a swarm of six- to twelve-week summer gigs that don’t typically offer much career advancement. Meaningful youth employment could take many shapes—“green jobs, Job Corps jobs, public works jobs, even tax credit–induced jobs,” Ratner writes, but it would prove vital for today’s entry-level employees and tomorrow’s breadwinners.