Are we on the brink of a worldwide youth revolt? Young adults in London have taken to the streets to protest cuts in education spending and tuition hikes. Students in Bologna, Italy, did likewise. Unemployment among young adults in Europe is staggering, creating a potential tinderbox for political unrest. And today’s New York Times reports on a growing class of Chinese students, who flocked to college on the promise of white-collar prosperity, only to find themselves woefully underemployed, living in crammed, filthy rabbit warrens in Beijing with fellow 20-somethings, and told that their degree means nothing without the “guanxi”–the personal connections that grease the way to a good job. (hmm, sounds familiar.)
The dashed dreams, the slow awakening that too many were sold a bill of goods, coupled with their vast numbers worldwide (including in the US) makes me wonder if we’re not on the precipice of a global youth uprising. In China alone, the number of 20-25 year-olds is 123 million, about 17 million more than four years ago, according to the Times article. They may be optimistic and ready to take on the world at age 22, but a few years of just scraping by working six days a week, and doubts and questions begin to take shape. Give a voice to that doubt, and who knows.
The world’s developed economies have seen the highest annual increase in youth unemployment since record-keeping began in 1991, according to a recent ILO report, Global Employment Trends for Youth, August 2010. In 2009, 13% of worldwide youth were unemployed. The rate was even higher (17.7%) in developed countries. This instability, the bleak prospects are in part a reason for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as well as the enduring Palestinian uprising. Youth in these nations, locked out of good jobs owing to high unemployment, favoritism, and a ruling class of elites, find a home in radical arms.
Reading the article on China, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels here and elsewhere among 20-somethings, given the current recession, the high cost of college, and the prospect of underemployment as the value of a BA sinks with a glut of college grads.
In the US, according to a recent report by the government, “College graduates who received a bachelor’s degree in 2008 borrowed 50% more (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than their counterparts who graduated in 1996, while graduates who earned an associate’s degree or undergraduate certificate in 2008 borrowed more than twice what their counterparts in 1996 had borrowed.” The quote is from a new analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project.
So far, on average, that debt is still manageable. The average debt for college grad from a four-year school is $22,000. That’s the price of new car. Not bad, considering the long-term payoff to a BA today. But –the value of that BA is sinking as more flock to college, creating a glut of college grads just when the economy grinds to a halt. There’s a lot of underemployed, or unemployed, young people out there.
While $22,000 might be manageable and a good investment in the long, run, it sure feels like a burden right now. (And don’t even get me started on how many drop out of college before getting the degree. Not that’s an expensive “lesson”). That sense of burden, of an unrelenting drag on their futures is enough for many to begin asking, where’s my piece of the pie? Disillusionment coupled with debt coupled with the ability to rally millions with a tweet is enough to make one wonder just how long it will be before we hear the rumblings of another youth movement.
If you think it couldn’t happen here, here’s a statistic that might change your mind. Three in ten young men in the US with just a high school degree have dropped out of the labor force altogether. They are not simply unemployed momentarily. They have given up on the workforce altogether. That’s a lot of idle young men.
In China, officials are beginning to tell kids to dial down their aspirations. Be more practical. If all your only option is a third-rate university, shift from a finance or computer programming degree to nursing or teaching. The officials, according to the Times, are indeed worried about the potential for unrest when millions of disillusioned 20-somethings begin to vent.
We should be worried, too. We should take this potential flash-mob seriously by developing some policies and programs that support young adults just starting out. We need clearer paths to middle-skill jobs. We need tuition reform–perhaps tied to graduation rates. We need employers to step up and offer on-the-job training and career ladders. We need rent control for young people. We need college debt payback to begin only when graduates start earning $30,000 or more (or some formula tied to their field and the cost of their degree). We need more loan forgiveness for going into lower-paid but valuable service jobs. These are just some of the options we should consider.
When back in the 1960s we discovered that too many elderly were living out their lives in dire poverty, we did something about it. We created Medicare and revamped Social Security to ensure just that, security in old age. Those programs have kept countless elderly in their homes with food on the table. They are good programs, worthy programs, despite their costs. Yet we ignore the other end of the age spectrum–conceivably the most important decade of a young person’s future life: the decade when they get their first real job, when they finish their education, when they marry and start families. We don’t want to coddle them by giving them too many breaks, apparently. (At least that’s the message I hear constantly whenever I blather on about this topic). Instead, we want 20-somethings to venture out, learn some hard lessons, and eventually “make it.”–mainly because that’s what we had to do. Yet few of us came of age with 10% unemployment (that’s the rate for young workers), with a college debt to pay back, or a highly competitive, much less predictable, much more unstable job force, even before the recession.
I think it’s time we had this conversation, before we wake up in the near future to a revolt in the streets.