Ask any 10 older Americans about the country’s greatest resource, and their response is, universally, young people.
We should ask those youths the same question because I think we’d get a whole different set of answers.
Clearly, with the world heavy on their shoulders, young people do not feel themselves to be all that special. They, of course, want to make it on their own, but increasingly doors remain closed to their success.
Thus, we’ve seen a lot of attention lately to the plight of our new generation. Unemployed, underemployed, burdened by student debt, confined to their parents’ home, facing revolutionary times — what is going to happen to those rookie grown-ups we’re unleashing on the world?
It is right to talk about this topic, particularly this time of year, as graduates leave various schools.
In a way, times have always been challenging for this age group. But I’m guessing that right now the challenge meter is near the top of its historical peak.
Jobs are few. With war de-escalating, the military is much pickier about who it accepts into its ranks. With college costs beyond the reach of average families, the all-important degree is, too. And with people living longer and staying longer in the workforce, many jobs that would have once opened to younger individuals are still occupied by their grandparents.
The circumstances affect more generations than simply the Millennials – the people born since the early 1980s.
Neil Howe, an expert on generation gaps, spoke this past month at Washington University and provided some real perspective on the shared plight.
The GI Generation, the group born between 1901 and 1924, enjoyed an energetic living standard after enduring the Great Depression. Its members were the first generation of the middle class to enter college in large numbers. They were America’s builders, whose collective concern was more about the future and less about the present.
They were followed by the Silent Generation, who came of age after World War II. They rarely talked about changing the system, instead working within it. Economically, they were on the “up elevator,” They enjoyed low interest rates, good pensions, and, years later, retired just before the crash in 2007, Howe said.
Then came the Baby Boomers, (1946-64), who “shook the windows and rattled the walls” of everything their parents had built, he said, loosely quoting Bob Dylan. They had a carelessness about personal wealth.
And it was somewhere during that aging spurt that the next two generations, Generation X and the Millennials, began suffering their first, obvious growing pains.
The GI Generation retired with more money than they ever expected to have, but Boomers are retiring later and with less, Howe said.
Because each successive generation helps underwrite the next, the Boomers’ burden is starting to trickle down upon younger people.
By almost every measure, Howe said, we see a dramatic decline in personal risk taking by youth. They’ve been unable to find solid work or careers. They are putting off marriages, births, car purchases, home buying and relocation.
Their circumstances are “leading to lives that are literally on hold,” he said.
This, I fear, is going to contribute to a continuing economic malaise. I can only imagine what it will be like two or three generations down the road, not just for young people but for a society that relies on spending prowess.
America’s leaders know this, of course. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and others are pushing for relief for those with massive student loan debt and those stuck in low-wage jobs. Neither problem has a cheap solution.
The real key, I believe, is establishment of something like the infrastructure programs we saw in the 1930s to the 1960s where bridges, dams and highways were all being built for the collective economic good of all America and the prosperity of those doing the work. Certainly the nation’s infrastructure needs an overhaul. And the youngest among us are best equipped to do it.
There are other means of addressing this, of course, but the significant thing is to re-establish the American Dream. Instill confidence in the young generation. It’s going to be a long, costly slog. But costlier still is the price of doing nothing.