The Young Are on the Streets Because They Have the Most to Lose

Oct 3, 2011Mike Konczal

Why are so many of the protesters on Wall Street college-age kids? Because their futures are at stake.

This Occupy Wall Street sign is my favorite:

The sign has a clever double meaning. The young have the most to lose by standing idle and not having their voices heard in the political process, and they have the most to lose by actually being idle -- or unemployed.

The media hasn't learned the lessons from the 1960s, as there is still a tendency to dismiss young people protesting because they are young. You can see this phenomenon in the original New York Times coverage, and it appears in much of the rest. But at the heart of dismissals of young college kids in the 1960s was the idea that they had a very bright future ahead of them that they were taking for granted. For instance, here's President Nixon in the New York Times, May 1970:

You know, you see these bums, you know, blowin' up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are, burnin' up the books, I mean, stormin' around about this issue, I mean you name it -- get rid of the war, there'll be another one.

Can it be argued that young people, college educated or not, are particularly lucky in this recession? Every category of worker is doing terribly in the Lesser Depression. My former editor Derek Thompson has a must-read article, "Who's Had the Worst Recession: Boomers, Millennials, or Gen-Xers?," which compares the three age categories across employment, income and wealth, and finds that everyone is suffering across the board.

But let's focus on the young. The issue of debt, especially student debt, hovers over the protests. How is the employment ratio looking for young people with a college degree? Here's data from last year:

And that doesn't factor in the fact that many college educated workers are working jobs that don't require college degrees. They are essentially using their degrees to crowd out those with a high school diploma or some college education from the jobs they would normally take. And no matter what jobs they are able to get, student debt hangs around their necks like an albatross.

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This impacts everyone who is young. Here's a summary of the recent 2010 Census' American Community Survey by PBS:

  • Employment among young adults between the ages of 16 to 29 was at its lowest level since the end of World War II. Just 55 percent were employed, compared with 67 percent in 2000.
  • Nearly 6 million Americans between the ages of 25 to 34 lived in their parents' homes last year.
  • Young men are nearly twice as likely as women to live with their parents.
  • Marriages among young adults hit a new low. Just 44 percent of Americans in that age group were married last year.
  • Other trends were also headed in the wrong direction. In 43 of the 50 largest metro areas -- often a magnet for 20-and-30-somethings -- employment declined.

In our desperate bid to replicate Japan, we are also replicating the poverty and joblessness among Japanese youths. This 2010 AOL article, "Japan's Economic Stagnation Is Creating a Nation of Lost Youths," can give you a sense of our trajectory.

Will we get our own version of the hikikomori? Young people are doubling up and not moving out of their parents' houses in this recession. If we looked at solely their own income, their poverty rates would be astounding. From the Census Bureau:

These “doubled-up” households are defined as those that include at least one “additional” adult -- in other words, a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is not the householder, spouse or cohabiting partner of the householder...

In spring 2007, there were 19.7 million doubled-up households, amounting to 17.0 percent of all households. Four years later, in spring 2011, the number of such households had climbed to 21.8 million, or 18.3 percent...

Young adults were especially hard-hit, with 5.9 million people ages 25 to 34 living in their parents’ household in 2011, up from 4.7 million before the recession. That left 14.2 percent of young adults living in their parents’ households in March 2011, up more than two percentage points over the period.

These young adults who lived with their parents had an official poverty rate of only 8.4 percent, since the income of their entire family is compared with the poverty threshold. If their poverty status were determined by their own income, 45.3 percent would have had income falling below the poverty threshold for a single person under age 65.

Even if we can ever move out of the short-term recession, it will impact young people for years to come. Looking at a research summary compiled previously by Roosevelt Institute super-intern Charlie Eisenhood, Beaudry and DiNardo (1991) found “that every percentage increase in the [national] unemployment rate is associated with a 3-7 percent drop in entry-level contract wages.” Kahn (2009) found an estimate on the high end of that spectrum, discovering an “initial wage loss of 6 to 7% for a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate measure.”

Unfortunately, the recession’s effect is not limited just to the initial job search and wages. The negative impact persists far beyond that. Kahn found that the effect “falls in magnitude by approximately a quarter of a percentage point each year after college graduation. However, even 15 years after college graduation, the wage loss is 2.5% and is still statistically significant.”

Job mobility is also affected. Kahn found a “negative correlation between the national unemployment rate and occupational attainment (measured by a prestige score) and a slight positive correlation between the national rate and tenure.” She concludes that “workers who graduate in bad economies are unable to fully shift into better jobs after the economy picks up.” Worse, Oreopoulos found permanent wage effects on workers with low expected earnings (based on occupational prestige).

So yes, young people have an important stake in what happens going forward. Do we continue policies that benefit Wall Street and the top 1 percent? Do we tax the rich to rebuild America? Do we reform a financial sector that dominates the economy? The list of choices in front of us goes on and on. Their whole future, indeed all of ours, depends on it. It's no wonder that they've taken to the streets.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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