Opinion

John Lloyd

The unemployed generation

John Lloyd
Sep 11, 2012 16:48 UTC

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.

Why doesn’t unemployment create more crime?

John Lloyd
Jan 17, 2012 17:09 UTC

With so much unemployment about, and more to come, it seems reasonable to fear that more crime will come with it. The devil, after all, finds work for idle hands, and that English proverb finds echoes everywhere. The French and the Finns say that “idleness is the mother of all vices” (the Italians think the same, except that it’s the father); the Portuguese, that “an empty head is the devil’s workshop”; the Egyptians, that “the idle hand is impure.” Who can gainsay such an accord of folk wisdom?

The U.S. crime statistics, for one. The big rise in U.S. unemployment (it’s going down a little now, but it’s still high, at around nine percent) hasn’t been accompanied by a surge in crime. The stagnation of working- and middle-class incomes hasn’t sent the sufferers out onto the street in orgies of thieving or robbery with assault. Although Americans – bamboozled by super-violent films and TV’s concentration on murder and rape – fear crime as much, if not more, than ever, still the real decline in most crimes is large, and has continued.

The reasons for rises and falls in crime are always contested, but one reason commonly cited – though not universally agreed upon – is the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. And it’s not just that the U.S. locks up people more willingly than other countries – the UK sends about the same percentage to prison. It’s that the prisoners spend longer, often much longer, inside. Research by Steven Levitt and William Spelman points to these sentences as reducing crime by a lot – about one-quarter. Other researchers say it’s much less (though still accounting for a measurable decline) and that the social effects, especially on young black men without college degrees or even high school diplomas, who are disproportionately incarcerated, outweigh the gains.

  •