A new generation's prospects

Employment opportunities for those ages 20-24 are worse than the general economy and not improving as rapidly. So are they going to college instead? The answer, apparently, is that they are not according to the latest figures. College enrollment is down slightly – and graduation rates within a 6-year time frame have ebbed to a new low, 59% of those who started in 2006. Graduation rates are improving at 2-year institutions such as community colleges and tech schools has increased from 21% to 37%, suggesting students are more serious, but are still pitifully low.

The problem for the young is much bigger than reduced employment opportunities today – it also includes reduced achievement in higher education which implies reduced opportunities tomorrow. This is part of a growing backlash against the “Educational Industrial Complex” that encourages debt but is unable to payoff with job opportunities. Will that backlash grow into a generational revolt?

In the 2012 election, voters under 30 (19% of the total) voted overwhelmingly for Obama, 60-37%. There is little doubt that they still have at least some belief in hope and change. That’s a turnout rate of 49%, nearly matching the record 51% in 2008. Young people are engaged in our process and apparently have strong opinions about the future of the nation. But what do they see in their own future?

There is not a lot of good, solid data to determine exactly what those in their 20s expect as their life unfolds. There is hardly a feeling of revolution being expressed in popular culture, as there was in the 1960s for one example. But a lengthy period of reduced economic opportunity is clearly the reality of their current and future prospects. They don’t seem to be especially worried about it, either.

The average 2011 graduate had $26,600 in student loan debt, a new record. That is the main force behind a grumbling backlash against colleges as not beacons of opportunity but instruments of slavery to debt. That feeling has to be part of the growing lack of interest in education, but again there is no hard data or any sign of a strong movement to back this up. It is merely a trend that is worth watching, if for no other reason than the productivity of this age group will come to define issues like Social Security and Medicare sometime in the 2020s and 2030s (which is say when I am eligible!).

Combining reduced opportunity without a degree, higher debt burdens, and lower overall educational achievement creates a very toxic future unless something changes rapidly. It seems completely unreasonable to assume that the US is going to maintain a high level of productivity among developed nations without some kind of focused development of skills – either on the job or in school. The development of a permanent underclass seems inevitable.

Once again, there is little hard data that points directly to what the future productivity will be in whatever economy grows out of the ashes of the one that collapsed in Depression (or Kondratieff Winter) in 2001. We can turn to futurists to determine what that economy might look like and analyze current trends to develop some idea where we are going. What is astonishing and very obvious is that those in their 20s are not yet participating in the development of that new economy to any significant degree – despite the fact that they are plugged into society as a whole. They are not showing any significant signs of popular resentment, rage, or revolt yet. A tiny bit of cynicism is about all that we can detect. At the risk of being judgmental, I’m not impressed.

Those who are now 24 were born in 1988, technically in the “Millenial” generation. Their parents are typically “Baby Boomers” who had children later in life and, in many cases, had more resources at their disposal (though, of course, not universally so). Their early lives were largely defined by the economic good times of the “Autumn” cycle just passed. Perhaps when the kids born after 2000 hit their 20s, in a few years, we will see a change given that their lives have been very different. Many of them were born to more cynical “Gen-Xers” (like me) and were more likely to be told that family resources were scarce when they were young.

We should expect the next few years to show a growing backlash among those in their 20s. Disenchantment with the political establishment should be an easy flashpoint, given how engaged they are. Some expression in popular culture will either lead or follow. But we can say for sure that not only are their prospects for a good job lousy today, they are likely to remain about as bad for a long time to come given declining educational achievement. This is a trend that is very much worth watching – and improving where we can.

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Erik Hare's picture
Erik Hare

Copyright 2013 by Erik Hare. All rights reserved.