The unemployed generation

September 11, 2012

Western youth are not what they used to be. Richer, better educated, more independent-minded than their forebears –they were once equipped for all conceivable futures.

But now, what future can they conceive?

These are the young men and women for whom the forward march of the generations has halted. Social normalcy was once defined as things only getting better. But now, not. What mixture of circumstances, what global alchemy, can put them back on that track once more?

For us in the older generations (40 years old and up), it is heartbreaking, even guilt-making, to hear of friends’ sons and daughters failing to find or to keep work. We see some of this firsthand, as increasing numbers of young people rely on or move in with their families, sometimes by preference and often out of necessity. Richard Settersten, a professor of human development at Oregon State University, says his research shows the young are:

“not hooked into jobs that provide decent wages, that provide insurance, that are stable and secure … the need to provide for growing adults is placing new and significant strains on a lot of American families, even middle-class families.”

One couple I know, medical researchers in London, have their early- and mid-twenties son and daughter at home. Two of their kids’ friends have also joined them, caught homeless when they could no longer afford an apartment and could not live with distant parents if they were to keep up the unpaid internships they hope will be transmuted into paying jobs.

Some working-class kids got an education their fathers and mothers did not have – and are now finding it doesn’t guarantee a job. For others, even the service and clerical jobs that have largely replaced manual and skilled work are shrinking relentlessly.

Ben Bernanke, head of the Federal Reserve, devoted part of his somewhat opaque speech in Jackson’s Hole at the end of last month to the need for the Fed to do more to tackle U.S. unemployment: It’s at 8.1 percent, and for youth (16-24) at 17.1 percent.

The rain in Spain is much harder on the young. More than half of Spanish young people – over 53 percent – have no job and little prospect of getting one in an economy in negative growth. The U.N.’s International Labor Organization’s figures, out this past week, showed a youth jobless rate of 17.5 percent this year in developed economies: That figure is due to fall a little, the ILO forecasts, but largely because “discouraged” kids give up on jobs altogether. The ILO had earlier called these people, worldwide, a “scarred” generation for whom jobs were no longer thought even an option – or if they were, they were precarious and low paid.

The West has been, and in some places still is, a great new jobs machine, and remains inventive, entrepreneurial and driven. Yet Indian and Chinese companies are poking into the old Western heartlands: Land Rover and Jaguar, British brands for decades, are now owned by the Indian company Tata; and Volvo, which defined itself as Swedish in its solidity and security, belongs to the Chinese company Zhejiang Geely, which plans to put future factories in China and to headquarter the company in Shanghai. Huawei is now the largest telecom equipment supplier, having overtaken Sweden’s Ericsson; Haier is among the world’s largest electrical appliance makers; and Lenovo is now pressing Hewlett-Packard for first place in PC production. These moves can bring jobs as well as destroy them, but the creation is less than the destruction. We are reduced to hoping that the large contradictions that run through Chinese society – a slowing economy, a vast gulf in wealth, a restive working class, an empowered middle class and a monopolistic Communist Party – will cause a period of turmoil, which will give us some respite from their relentless economic success.

Yet to see only the fundamental and possible fatal flaws in Chinese politics is to ignore the gathering crisis in our own. Western democratic practice presupposed an active electorate – one generally satisfied with the political arrangements as they are, content to leave most details, even strategies, to a political class without interfering too much. It was willing and able to rationally choose between competing political offers according to government performance.

That isn’t what we have now. The distrust and dislike expressed by Western electorates for their governing and most opposition parties is now intense. Everywhere, if in different degrees of intensity, the crisis is being addressed by cuts to what had been social entitlements. Even where one concedes their necessity, the obvious result is that those with not much get less.

And there seems nothing those who are getting less can do as the rich remain rich and usually take care to get richer.

We are at a critical stage. What to do?

First, start at the other end from the young – at the older middle-aged, who are stepping into pension and other entitlements that will load burdens on to their kids. In a much-discussed column, New York Times writer and former Executive Editor Bill Keller argued that “we should make a sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause.” Stanford University founded a Longevity Center six years ago with the explicit mission “to redesign long life,” so that men and women can contribute to (rather than take from) the economy deep into their eighties. Laura Carstensen, the director, says that “to the degree that people reach old age mentally sharp, physically fit, and financially secure, the problems of individual and societal aging fall away” – a statement redolent of American optimism, and a great goal.

Second, we should try to get at the rich. (Some have been got at already, most successfully by themselves.) They should be asked to give large portions of their wealth to help solve national and global problems. But many haven’t. We should make sure they know that their vast wealth will, increasingly, put society – and them – at danger: that increased impoverishment will inflame anger and that the social base for their enjoyment of great wealth will erode. Wealth is often the result of hard work and risk-taking, but coal miners, fishermen and nurses know about that too, and usually die in modest circumstances. Guilt and fear are not to be scorned as engines of change.

And for the youth generations themselves: You have more to fear from despair than from life itself. It’s you who need to generate the energy that turns your collective plight into a space for creativity and innovation. Blaming “them” – the politicians, the elders, the teachers, “society” – is deadly. Deadliest is a turn into crime and violence that sets group against group, the scared majority against the angry minority. The memory of London’s riots a year back should teach you that. Above all, your discouraged generation needs courage.

PHOTO: Job seekers wait in front of the training offices of Local Union 46, the union representing metallic lathers and reinforcing ironworkers, in the Queens borough of New York, April 29, 2012. REUTERS/Keith Bedford 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The youth for those in their 20’s is gone. I will not look back fondly at what should have been the best years of my life. I can’t afford to live, marry, or do any of the things that were supposed to have been the hallmark of a the quality of life for a developed nation. I’m rightly angry. There ought to be more riots, and revolution. Why should we try to heal a broken system? We have nothing more to lose. But those who broke the system have everthing to lose, therefore they should repair it, and soon. Sorry but courage to me is not “soldiering on” and hoping that (R) or (D) make some incremental alteration. Courage is facing what is to come, and that is the storm.

Posted by jdsickler | Report as abusive

My advice to my sons, and all young people, is to know the difference between a skill and an education.

Nobody wants to hire a liberal arts major who hasn’t ever held a real job in his or her life. If you are lucky enough to get a job you’ll be expected to start at the bottom and work up, something that the youth in western society is not accustomed to.

On the other hand you maybe making $100,000/year as a welder (yes, they can make that)and not know how to invest your money or understand that mortgage you just signed.

Finally, while western society has its share of problems its still, by far, the best place for an individual. The choices we enjoy, including bad ones, are available to almost everyone.

Posted by Blake1952 | Report as abusive

An endless stream of mergers and buyouts have contributed to this more than anything else. Duplicate jobs always go no matter what is said at the time of the merger. Competition in this country is vanishing fast. If you don’t believe me ask whoever visits the grocery store in your household how choices are at the market. Merger’s need to be disallowed by law. There is no need for companies to be larger at all. The goal of all business should be a better product that the consumer will buy because it is better. Anything else is frankly immoral. And it is clear that the larger the company the less important product quality has become. Companies over 10,000 employees should be dismantled. And it should be done before the overworked, unemployed and the just plain abused workers find someone with a voice to inspire them to more dire action.

Posted by Greenshadow22 | Report as abusive

The Industrial Revolution was an unprecedented disruption to many people’s live. It was “good” for society, in that production became more efficient over time and “developed countries” enjoyed a progressively improving “standard of living”.

It was catastrophic for individuals whose limited skills were no longer needed, did not acquire new ones, and never worked again. They were the “collateral damage” of progress.

America’s economy and that of countries over the world are again in the midst of convulsive change. This time there are multiple factors at work that should be obvious, but few seem to be able to “connect the dots”.

We are only now seeing the long term effects of inexpensive computers on business. They have made possible an expanding “just in time” efficiency for production, inventory and distribution in food, fuel, chemicals, widgets, etc.

When it is no longer necessary to employ lots of people steadily to make lots of things a manufacturer expects to remain “in demand” those jobs don’t go anywhere or ever come back. When production is precisely and accurately matched with seasonal demand, no longer are huge warehouses necessary. The people who once built an/or administered these facilities have to find other work.

It is increasingly less expensive for companies to structure jobs such that they can be “mastered” by anyone off the street that is literate and has basic math skills in a two week period. It is also less expensive to hire two twenty-hour part timers (so long as there are more applicants than jobs) without “benefits”, as each can almost be given twice as much work when necessary without having to pay overtime.

Those jobs that can be automated increasingly will be. Computer controlled machines will work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without complaint, raises, “continuing education”, promotions, time off, breaks, sick leave, medical insurance, families, vacations, or retirement.

The number of “jobs” necessary for society to function is decreasing even as our population is increasing. People without a productive place in society become an increasing challenge to educate and employ. As their percentage of a society becomes larger, so does their drag on the economy of which they are part.

The elephant in the room is that population has ceased to translate into economic growth. On the family farm, more children meant more labor to work more land with greater efficiency. In the city, more children just mean more unproductive mouths to feed that may never leave “home”. Most population today is in the world’s cities.

The days of each generation having a “better life” are at an end until and unless energy sources and production methods become prevalent that do not further pollute this big blue marble we live on. Huge changes are necessary in human expectations if mankind’s reproductive efficiency is not to rapidly turn our planet into a big brown marble utterly devoid of sentient life.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

The destruction of the American Middle-Class is all part of the plan to ensure the bondage of the people in perpetuity as wage slaves. These people will be more desperate for work than ever. It doesn’t have to stay this way. End market-capitalism, NOW!


Posted by Lord_Foxdrake | Report as abusive

The following article came to my attention when browsing the internet. ‘Youth unemployment in the Netherlands is the lowest in the whole of Europe. So what can we learn from the Dutch approach?’ By Jim Reed, Newsbeat reporter in Den Bosch, Netherlands. So what is different in the UK. There will be numerous reasons. Perhaps it could have something to do with ‘work ethics’ the attitude to working, serving someone else, learning a trade and be respected for it, having ambition, competing in the market place and striving to being the best in your chosen field/skill/profession! Work culture and attitude to becoming self reliant and self sufficient. The question ought to be asked ‘is the unemployed generation in the UK a social construct?

Posted by rmn | Report as abusive

Zeitgeistmovie has made his remark at least five times too often; please take all but one off…?

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive

The destruction of the middle-class is all part of the plan.


Posted by Lord_Foxdrake | Report as abusive

wow sorry about that. i did think the comment went through, didn’t mean to post multiple times. i hate that. sorry.

Posted by Lord_Foxdrake | Report as abusive

In the electronic business and most others, for the last 30 years we exported technology & know-how in search for a cheaper manufacturing place outside the US & Europe.

In 30 years those “cheap” places not only learned the lesson on “how to” but perfected it, leaving us behind, and they are constantly eroding our know-how edge.

The mirage of the “service” sector being stronger than manufacturing and the computer technology increasing productivity, are killing the clerical jobs that most of the young educated crowd has been directed.

We need to create a fiscal environment that will support the re-birth of a healthy domestic manufacturing sector. Would be better than just another QE.

Posted by robb1 | Report as abusive

The author forgot to mention that more than 50% of college graduates are unemployed in the United States. Me, Im looking into what else to do. I am no longer gonna sit around applying for jobs 24/7. I am not going back to school. It’s all the same of the same, get a huge loan, and leave without employable skills. So Im learning things on my own, and yes, I am home with my parents even when it’s not easy. This is survival and Im not letting anything make me die of hunger, if I didnt have my parents for now. And I dont want to stop life. Who said I cant save up money? Who said one cannot marry poor? If we think this way, we’ll never have children, find a life companion, and console each other on life’s tough ways. Life is for fighting, it is a struggle, and there is a beauty in all things. I am sick of feeling sorry for myself and my generation. It is pathetic although sometimes cant help it. I cry sometimes. I used to cry a lot. Anger, sadness, despair. I wanted to make my parents proud of our investment in my education, moral and financial support, etc. by getting the type of job it SHOULD lead to. But they had a harder life that I never experienced. And they succeeded, they stood up again when the economy rejected them, they fought and found different ways and gave our family stability from nothing. So life goes on. There is always tomorrow except for the time when you give up on everything that makes you happy. I feel like this is an opportunity for change to me. I have realized that maybe Id make more money, but it wasn’t what I really loved to do. So in the meantime Im at my parents’, I try getting to the things I love doing, if I cant have the job or will take longer, then they cant take away from me doing something I love and try to profit from it. The world is changing, there is no more industrial age, technology is in. Technology and environment. But who knows how it will go, with all the violence I feel like Im living in a sort of 1930s..headed into the 40s? Oh no. Anyway, we just got to hold tight, suck it up, and make lemonade with life’s lemons. It’s much easier, beneficial for us, and faster in getting to what we want, than complaining any longer.

Posted by katienichols | Report as abusive

Ya, the multiple posting wasn’t / isn’t our fault.

Like Capitalism… the system is BADLY broken.

Posted by Lord_Foxdrake | Report as abusive

I am for reviving the concept of quality in manufacturing that was once, (not that long ago), the pride of America, Germany, England and others. We have lost the concept all together. Today, a ‘product’ is stamped into existence by computer controlled robots or assembled by under-paid, over-worked and under-educated slaves. Look on the shelves of any shop in your area. You will be hard-pressed to find a single item which wasn’t ‘made’ in China, Taiwan, Mexico, India, etc. The light switch you flipped on earlier, the shoes you are wearing right now and the alarm that woke you this morning were all likely ‘produced’ by a 14 year old child who is living in a desperate and hopeless ‘work or starve’ existence.
Cheaper rarely means better. As for the stuff we buy from China and certain other oppressive countries, cheaper always equates to poverty and oppression, wasted lives and abused, exploited, denigrated and hopeless children.

Posted by greyblog | Report as abusive

One important aspect that was missed here is the consumerism that is prevalent in the youngsters too. Youngsters spend money on gadgets and waste their time using them (like chatting on Facebook on an iphone).

Anyway, let me ask this question. Why are “over 53 percent” of Spanish young people not competing for outsourced services with India / China / Brazil that will allow each youngster to earn a cool $36k a year at the least?

Are they lazy to learn English? Is not having a job better than $36k a year?

It is not the government, it is not China, it is not the rich. It is the people themselves. They need to stop focussing on consumption. Stop buying iphones and gadgets and vacations and all the hi-fi stuff. That only makes the rich who own those companies richer. Focus on what you can produce even if it is valued with a low salary is better than producing nothing.

And there is nothing wrong in moving in with parents. it teaches to self control the unbridled ego that has become the hallmark of the youngsters of this age.

Posted by ThatWhichIs | Report as abusive