The unemployed generation
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