The Lost Generation
The continuing job crisis is hitting young people especially hard—damaging both their future and the economy
Bright, eager—and unwanted. While unemployment is ravaging just about every part of the global workforce, the most enduring harm is being done to young people who can't grab onto the first rung of the career ladder.
Affected are a range of young people, from high school dropouts, to college grads, to newly minted lawyers and MBAs across the developed world from Britain to Japan. One indication: In the U.S., the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds has climbed to more than 18%, from 13% a year ago.
For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of "lost generation." Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.
Equally important, employers are likely to suffer from the scarring of a generation. The freshness and vitality young people bring to the workplace is missing. Tomorrow's would-be star employees are on the sidelines, deprived of experience and losing motivation. In Japan, which has been down this road since the early 1990s, workers who started their careers a decade or more ago and are now in their 30s account for 6 in 10 reported cases of depression, stress, and work-related mental disabilities, according to the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-Economic Development.
When today's unemployed finally do get jobs in the recovery, many may be dissatisfied to be slotted below people who worked all along—especially if the newcomers spent their downtime getting more education, says Richard Thompson, vice-president for talent development at Adecco Group North America, which employs more than 300,000 people in temporary positions. Says Thompson: "You're going to have multiple generations fighting for the jobs that are going to come back in the recovery."
What's more, the baby boom generation is counting on a productive young workforce to help fund retirement and health care. Instead, young people risk getting tracked into jobs that don't pay as well, says Lisa B. Kahn of the Yale School of Management. That would mean lower tax payments for Social Security and Medicare.
Only 46% of people aged 16-24 had jobs in September, the lowest since the government began counting in 1948. The crisis is even hitting recent college graduates. "I've applied for a whole lot of restaurant jobs, but even those, nobody calls me back," says Dan Schmitz, 25, a University of Wisconsin graduate with a bachelor's degree in English who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Every morning I wake up thinking today's going to be the day I get a job. I've not had a job for months, and it's getting really frustrating."
ANXIETY AND FEAR
The case for action is strong. Governments should act now before the damage gets even worse, argues David G. Blanchflower, an economist at Dartmouth College who recently served on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. He's not sure what will work, but he favors trying everything from subsidizing education and training to cutting minimum wages for young people and trainees. "It has to be now," says Blanchflower. "It can't be in two years' time."
Most analyses of youth employment focus on people aged 16 to 24, which includes everyone from high school dropouts to wet-behind-the-ears college grads. But in this era of rising educational requirements, some people don't start their careers until their mid or late 20s—and these young college grads are taking it on the chin as well.
According to a BusinessWeek analysis, college graduates aged 22 to 27 have fared worse than their older educated peers during the downturn. Two years ago, 84.4% of young grads had jobs, only somewhat lower than the 86.8% figure for college graduates aged 28 to 50. Since then, the employment gap between the two groups has almost doubled.
Robert I. Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule, a management book, says he's seeing "more anxiety and fear" among his students at Stanford University.