BLOG: How unemployment will change the attitude of young America

We acquire the strength we have overcome. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Being a young person entering the job market in today’s economic climate can be disheartening. With six people competing for every one vacancy, the likeliness of being under-qualified and under-experienced in comparison to your competitors – many of whom have been working for years – is high. But being young and unemployed is better than being middle-aged and unemployed, right? Perhaps not, according to an article in this month’s Atlantic magazine titled, “How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America” by Don Peck. Young adults may never recover from their experiences during the first few years of job hunting.

A study conducted by Lisa Kahn, an economist at Yale, showed that young workers entering the job market during a recession will earn less wages in their lifetime than those who find a job during more prosperous times. And young adults of the Recession will never close that gap in earnings:

Seventeen years after graduation, those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate.

The “unlucky” graduates were also less likely to be in professional careers, and much less likely to change jobs. “This behavior may have resulted from a lingering risk aversion, born of a tough start,” explains Peck. In other words, young adults today may be fearful for the rest of their lives – too afraid to pursue other career opportunities or take risks. But this new attitude might also be beneficial – at least for a portion of today’s youth.

Sociologists have highlighted a worrying trend in young, middle-class Americans, which many attribute simply to a upsurge in “optimism.” They have “much higher material expectations than previous generations,” writes Peck, after being told by their parents that they are “special,” can do anything they want and be anyone they want to be. This also makes it harder for “Generation Y” (as they have been termed) to cope with the qualities required by today’s job market, including “perseverance, adaptability, humility and entrepreneurialsm.” These young people, apparently, are likely to turn down jobs that they don’t feel are good enough, even if they have no other options.

Perhaps, then, a cold hard dose of reality will be enough to bring these kids back down to Earth. Unless their parents continue to bail them out. “According to a recent Pew survey,” writes Peck, “10 percent of adults younger than 35 have moved back in with their parents as a result of the recession.”

Nice for some. But what if your parents can’t afford to keep you?

Those with a lower socio-economic status no doubt have a different story to tell. And what about race? Well, Peck hardly touches this subject, except to say that more areas in the country may come to look like the “inner cities of the 1970s and ’80s.” In other words, he’s talking about middle-class white families beginning to suffer the same ailments that poor, Black and Latino communities have been suffering for decades.

African-American and Latino men have been the hardest hit by a trim job market, and their children are no exception. In addition to the financial burden of unemployment, teenagers growing up in homes with unemployed fathers are more likely to be victims of abuse. And much less likely, no doubt, to suffer from the unfailing “optimism” that Peck talks about. Hopelessness still pervades these communities, and young people coming up against a brick wall when they turn to look for a job will only make that feeling worse. At least, however, hardship doesn’t come as a shock to these children, who might even be better prepared for a tough job market than more affluent peers.