Unemployed Young Face Long-Term Harm

Each weekday morning, I feel a flush of gratitude. Rather than fight dread at having to schlep myself to the office, I feel blessed that I have a job I enjoy. Many of my generation are not as fortunate.

A new report shows the weak economy is inflicting devastating damage to young people that is not just immediate, but reaches into the future. The study shows they are facing chronic, long-term downward mobility, in income and in well-being. The report, "The State of Young America," was released by Demos, a national policy center where I work, and Young Invincibles, a youth advocacy group.
Workers, ages 18 to 24, suffer from severe joblessness, 17.3%. Worse, unemployment rates for young blacks stands at 28.8%, and for Latinos, 20.1%. Young adults who do hold jobs earn smaller paychecks: All but America's best-educated young workers earn less than the previous generation at the same age. Less earnings mean groceries, housing and transportation account for a greater share of their income than in the past. For example, the housing slice of the monthly budget for those under 25 rose from 23.7% in 1980 to 32.1% in 2009.
These heavy expenses have long-term impacts. Although home prices are down, many first-time buyers, ages 18 to 35, lack the down payment, earnings or credit rating to get a mortgage. Their earning power also is expected to remain stagnant for years, making it difficult to shed debt. The average student loan debt? $24,000, plus interest. For young households with credit card debt, the average percentage of monthly income devoted to all debt payments spiked between 1989 and 2007, from 18.3% to 24.3%. Those numbers are only slightly higher than other groups, but that debt is more biting on a young person's pinched income.
The report also reveals that large percentages of young adults say they are delaying getting an education, getting married, purchasing a home and starting families because of the tough times. They also say they are working fewer hours, for less pay, in "placeholder" careers, not their chosen vocations.
Progress from one generation to the next is the cornerstone of America. The longstanding opportunity allowing young adults to thrive in decent jobs, own homes and start families is disappearing. The country's future demands not only reforming the power imbalances and corruption festering from Wall Street to Washington; it requires making the American Dream a reality for young people — again.
Rich Benjamin serves on the Board of Contributors at USA TODAY, and is a senior fellow at Demos.