It's no secret we are living through the worst economic time of our lives. This era is worse than the stagflation and oil shocks of the 1970s; some even argue it's as bad as the 1930s. The dirty little secret is that, as bad as it is for us Baby Boomers, it's worse for our children.
According to a chart from Rortybomb, overall joblessness is more than twice as high for 20-somethings as it is for older workers. And the greatest percentage increase in unemployment between the end of 2007 and the end of 2010 was among 20 to 24 year olds with a college education!
Yale economist Lisa Kahn says young adults will most likely see their career opportunities permanently diminished by this recession. She did a study of men who graduated during the early '80s recession, and found that all else being equal, for each one percent increase in the national unemployment rate, the starting income of recent graduates fell by 7 percent. And 17 years later, those who entered the workplace during the recession were earning 10 percent less than those who started their careers in better economic times.
As Don Peck writes in a long article in The Atlantic, for Millennials (people born in the 1980s and '90s), the problem is not just the money they're not making today, it's all the money they won't make tomorrow. Not only do these young adults fall behind on the ladder of raises and promotions, but they are actually missing out on job skills. When you're in your 20s, in a first career-level job, you're learning skills, building a resume, developing contacts -- in short, learning the ropes. But if you squander four or five years at a low-skill stop-gap job, you miss out on that education. It doesn't take long to go from a promising 22-year-old college grad with an honors degree, to a 28-year-old drifter who can't keep a job.
To add insult to injury, even as the job market for 20-somethings has dried up, these young adults are carrying more student debt than any generation before them. Last year, for the first time, total student loan debt surmounted total credit card debt, at some $850 billion. And, believe it or not, college and graduate school costs are going up even faster than health care costs.
Those of us who had children early, with kids now in their 30s, may have escaped much of these economic headwinds. The kids got their careers established before the great recession, and they've managed to hold onto their positions. And maybe those later Baby Boomers, whose children are still in high school, can hold out hope that the economy will improve by the time their kids graduate from college.
But those of us with kids in their 20s know first hand that the business world has turned its back on a whole generation. Between us, B and I have four kids ranging in age from age 20 to 28. One is still in college; another is in graduate school; and two are trying to launch their careers out of the current economic quicksand.
My own son recently told me he got a promotion. "Now they're almost paying me a living wage," he said sardonically.
I told him, "Hey, you're doing pretty well these days if you're pulling in a salary that almost pays you a living wage." He nodded, acknowledging that a lot of his friends are working retail, or working part time, or going to school because they couldn't get a job at all, or sitting at home because they couldn't get a job.
So what can we tell these 20-something kids?
Despite the dismal statistics for college graduates, I still believe people are better off with an education. We live in an information age. Most good jobs require people to research, develop, manipulate, analyze and present information. The better you are at these tasks, the better your job. The more sophisticated and specialized your skills, the more in demand your services will be. Many jobs that used to require a bachelor degree now require a master's. But ... a warning. Education is expensive. I would be careful not waste your money getting a degree you'll never use. And don't bet your future developing skills that are not in demand. In other words, study business, engineering, teaching or nursing. Don't major in art history or sociology or English literature. Not unless you're really passionate about the subject and have a plan for how you can turn your passion into a reasonable career
I'd also advise people to learn a practical skill. "There are many slips between glass and lips," as the old saying goes. No matter how promising your field, how good you are in your chosen profession, the world changes and can make almost any job obsolete. So don't end up like my brother in law, who made a pretty good living in the construction industry -- until a few years ago. But he had no skills to fall back on, and is now driving a delivery van for minimum wage. So learn how to cook or tend bar; get some experience as a coach or camp counselor; take some practical courses in software and computing; and don't be afraid to get some experience as a salesman. A practical skill to fall back on, if for some reason your career collapses.
I've said this before to our kids, and I'll say it again. Learn another language. There will always be a job for someone who's first language is English, but who is fluent in Spanish. There will likely be opportunities for people who speak Russian, Japanese or one of the Chinese languages. Okay, I admit it. Learning Russian or Chinese is hard. But come on. Millions of Chinese and Russians have learned English. If they can do it, so can we. And by the way, for those college kids spending a semester overseas, don't waste it by going to an English-speaking country. That's a vacation. Go to a country where you will learn the language and the culture.
Don't be afraid to move away from your home town. A lot of the 20-somethings I know are clinging close to home. Many are actually living at home. They're scared, and home provides security. But staying at home is not the American way. We wouldn't be here if our grandparents hadn't left Poland or Italy or Ireland to seek a better life here. And they didn't hesitate to move west to Colorado or California to seek better opportunities. So I'd encourage the kids to expand their job search. There's no reason to stay in the Northeast or the Midwest if there are no job opportunities. Go to South Carolina or Texas or Arizona. Or, maybe even Brazil or Russia or India. In a global economy, it's unlikely that the best opportunities will be in your backyard.
If you can, join a union. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said: Unions = Jobs. I actually do not believe that. I think unions can be exclusionary and might even kill jobs by driving up the cost of labor. But that's the point -- if you can get into that exclusive club, then a union will help you get better pay and benefits, as well as protect your rights as an employee.
And finally, to the parents of all those 20 somethings, I'd say -- please be supportive. Don't blame them for the bad job market. Don't blame them for getting discouraged. Don't blame them for either taking a crappy job, or for turning down a crappy job. Just help them become "the best that they can be."
And if you have any other helpful advice for how they can do that, please let me know. I'll pass it on to our four 20-somethings who are struggling mightily to make their way in a hostile world.