Rudy Takala
October 6, 2011
The lost generation's befuddlement
By Rudy Takala

With historic levels of unemployment and economic difficulty facing young adults now leaving college, analysts say that their prospects for future employment look bleak. Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University, said that today's young people "will be scarred and they will be called the 'lost generation' — in that their careers would not be the same way if we had avoided this economic disaster."

Copious statistics bolster the claim. Among adults aged 18 to 34, just 3.2 million people, or 4.4 percent, moved across state lines last year, the lowest number since World War II. Nearly six million adults aged 25 to 34 lived with their parents in 2010, an increase of 25 percent from before the beginning of the recession in 2007.

The phrase "lost generation" first originated after World War I, introduced chiefly by Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway as a descriptor for those who had obtained few practical skills while fighting and who had returned to a suffering economy in which they were unprepared to participate.

Does our contemporary problem transcend simple economic malaise? Could it be, as Barack Obama recently lamented, that Americans have gotten "soft"? (Of course, retraction of that statement came almost immediately; Obama went on to say we have the "best universities, the best scientists, and best workers in the world." What we have done to become soft, outside of electing him, was a question unanswered.)

Unsurprisingly, the agenda underlying Obama's lament was the idea that the federal government should spend more on education. Government intervention, liberals would suggest, is the way to stop being "soft." In this regard, they bear a resemblance to all of the dictators of the 20th century.

However, polling suggests that the nation's current set of young adults have a soft spot for government meddling. When asked by Pew Polling whether they believed things run by the federal government were "usually inefficient and wasteful," 32% of 18-25-year-olds responded affirmatively while 64% percent felt the federal government ran things well. In contrast, the same age group split equally on the question in 1988, when 47% responded each way.

Similarly, Pew suggests that today's young people are more likely to embrace career politicians. Asked whether we need "new people in Washington even if they're not as effective as experienced politicians," only 35% of 18-25-year-olds agreed. More than 57% of people over the age of 60 agreed.

Just as political values have shifted, so have personal and social values. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, marriages fell to a record low of 51.4% in adults 18 and over in 2010. In adults 25 to 34, the rate fell to a record low of 44.2%. Many analysts have suggested it is a consequence of the economy rather than of individual priorities, but that seems dubious. In 1950, 74% of all adults were married (also according to the Census Bureau), including 82% of those in the 25-34 range. The economy wasn't great at that time, either; unemployment in October 1949 was nearly 8%, just one point lower than today.

What's changed that made the present job market so much more exclusionary to the newest generation of workers? No lack of effort has been made on the government's side to jumpstart the economy. Barack Obama forked out $787 billion in "stimulus" spending, while George W. Bush spent $700 billion on "troubled asset relief." In spite of the government's meddling — which the suffering young workforce mostly supports — the most recent recession lasted longer than any since the Great Depression.

The federal government's investment came at no small price. Its $15 trillion in debt means that each citizen owes $47,000 to pay it off; those with more time to spend in the workforce obviously owe more.

Almost comically, young adults do not anticipate paying it. The Blaze asked students in California to sign a petition to Congress saying they pay their $47,000 share so that the government wouldn't need to cut spending. Most refused even though they were also opposed to spending cuts; one college Democrat said, "I'm not contributing to the national debt."

Today's young adults are spurning the stability and conservatism that some generations have preferred in favor of lifestyles that are more spontaneous and a political system that is more technocratic and paternal. They believe their government is a structure that can provide support without having any supports under it. It is hard to see America's economic plight improving until its newest generation of young adults can find a way to reconcile their passions with reality.

© Rudy Takala

 

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