In the several interviews I've now done for Not Quite Adults, the conversation has generally hewed to kids living at home and why that's a good thing. We've talked about how it leads to a more secure future when kids have the space, literally and figuratively, to create a good foundation with education or training, and the time to figure out how to get on a good escalator in the workforce. We've talked about parents' role in this period--the valuable resources they provide in offering that launching pad.
We've also talked about the many, many young adults who are trying to play by the old rulebook and trying to reach "adulthood" on the same time-table as their parents did. Those kids are more often than not treading water at risk of sinking, because today's world is a lot different from when their parents were 20. The stakes are higher all around today-- in jobs, in education demands, and in many other areas of life as well. It's (sadly) easier to dig yourself into a hole, and much harder to get out.
So it was sobering to read in this issue of Democracy the prognosis of leading labor force experts for the next ten years, and by default for this generation. Things have only gotten worse since we published "Not Quite Adults," and it makes me worry that the ranks of the "treaders" is going to grow even larger (and include many more college grads).
Here's Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO on what life might look like in 2021:
Ten years from now, the trauma of the Great Recession will still be with a lot of workers. We'll have permanent scars of long-term unemployment...We worry about a "lost generation," young people coming into the labor force right now and finding they don't have jobs. There might be a several-year period of excessively high unemployment or underemployment where their skills are underutilized.
She goes on to warn that the pillars of recovery have been seriously eroded. Consumption, that tried-and-true growth engine? Nope, we consumers are maxed out. Investment? The private sector is in lock-down because we consumers have no money. Exports? Too many others (like Germany) are far ahead of us in that game. Innovation? We lack the basics. We are sinking in education, we don't invest in training, and our infrastructure is crumbling.
The result for this crop of 20-somethings just entering the workforce? Here's Sherle Schwenninger of the New America Foundation:
There will also be a new form of generation conflict because a lot of baby boomers aren't going to vacate jobs that 25-year-olds normally would get...They will be hanging onto their jobs as long as possible. This will create a bottleneck for generational mobility, affecting the employment prospects of new entrants into the labor market.
Even the college-educated will feel the reverberations of this enduring pain, as Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown, notes:
"My fear is that all of them [workers with low, middle, and high levels of education] will live, if not with more inequality, certainly with more insecurity over time. Even if we recover from this downturn...if you have a college diploma, it's growing increasingly clear that that's no longer the kind of guarantor of a decent standard of living (though it's better to have one than not to have one) or of job stability. People at all levels will feel more insecurity, and the public sector will provide less of a safety net.
One man on a comment board recently complained that Not Quite Adults was just one big excuse for a coddled generation. Claiming that "times change," he ranted, is a liberal cop-out. What's really at fault, he said, is bad parenting and spoiled children. Well, if there was ever a refute, the three comments above are it. It is not coddled kids or bad parenting that is preventing young people from launching their adult lives. Times had already changed when we wrote Not Quite Adults. Jobs had become less secure. Education was in higher demand. Americans were increasingly left on their own to fashion their personal safety net in a do-it-yourself economy. But now, all those changes have been exacerbated beyond imagination--and it is this generation that will bear the brunt.
When we focus too much on personal blame and finger-pointing, we shift our focus away from the real issues, in this case the huge social forces --from globalization, technology, political disinvestments in education and R&D, changing social conventions --that have altered the playing field. Times do change. And we must respond to those changes and not try to recreate a nostalgic "golden era" of growing up.
This generation faces a tough road ahead. We need to start thinking about how to make that path to adulthood smoother and more secure, for everyone. Parents cannot continue to bear the full responsibility of the after-effects of these profound social changes--the latest being the long-lasting recession.
As Harry Holzer suggested, a good place to start is to invest in improving worker education and skills along with the quality of jobs--perhaps with an employer tax credit to spur on-the-job training. It also means revamping education policy. Education policy cannot be only about raising test scores. It must be about preparing a generation for viable work, and retraining people for the skills we will need in the future. As he says, it's not about getting more people into college. It's more about making sure they finish college, whether that be two-year or four-year colleges. It's also about making paths to good-paying middle-tier jobs more visible earlier on in life. It's also about helping kids discover their interests and strengths, even if those interests are not as lofty as we as parents had hoped. When kids follow their interest, whether that be into neuroscience, engineering, or mechanics or phlebotomy, they will more likely love what they do. If they love what they do, they will do a good job at it. And that, alone, is something to be proud of.