Graduation season has drawn to a close, and given the economy, both high school and college graduates now face uncertain futures. For generations, American parents expected their children to achieve greater economic and social status than they did. Surveys show that few families believe that this is likely any more. After decades of widespread belief in upward mobility, Americans no longer see a perpetually brighter future.
Our economic pessimism is well-earned, and that has significant implications for young adults from working-class and middle-income blue-collar families. The old model of following a parent into the steel mill or auto plant has been a doubtful dream for a couple of decades now, and the current economic crisis makes it even less realistic. As Bob Herbert pointed out in a recent op-ed, workers under 30 have been the hardest hit in this recession. So what will become of the rising generation of working-class kids? What does their future look like?
In Friday’s New York Times, Steven Greenhouse highlighted one option: college. Perhaps ironically, community college enrollments are swelling, much as they did during the 1970s, when the higher education system significantly expanded the community college option in part as a way of keeping young adults out of an overcrowded workforce for a few more years. Of course, today most students remain in the workforce while going to school, often working 30 or more hours a week at low-wage jobs to scrape up enough for tuition. While college increases an individual’s lifetime earning potential, it doesn’t in itself ensure a strong economic future. Among other things, young people seeking educational escape routes too often choose for-profit schools that offer training for jobs that don’t exist. Others take on debt that will undermine their economic stability for years after graduation. Meanwhile, as I noted a few months ago, most of the fastest-growing occupations don’t require a college degree, and many recent college graduates are struggling to find work.
As Greenhouse notes, some recent high school graduates are choosing college because they don’t like the jobs that are available. They simply don’t want to work for $7.50 an hour, and who can blame them? And even those jobs are becoming more scarce. That’s why many young adults are entering the informal economy, off-the-books jobs that include legal work that is not formally reported, such as mowing lawns or caring for children, as well as illegal work such as prostitution. According to recent reports, the informal economy is growing as the formal economy shrinks. Some off-the-books jobs might pay more than $7.50 an hour, but they also bring the potential for exploitation, poor working conditions, and intermittent employment. Not exactly the foundation to build a comfortable life.
All of this occurs against a backdrop of what is likely to be a very slow economic recovery and at a time in their lives when young adults should be developing the work experience upon which to build a secure future. As Louis Uchitelle reported last week, even in this bad economy, some employers are struggling to fill jobs, because they want experienced workers. Tomorrow’s experienced workers can only come from the ranks of today’s beginners, but with so few good entry-level jobs open now, how will we develop the kind of workforce we will need in another decade? As Uchitelle’s article suggests, college alone won’t do it. Nor will low-wage jobs in the formal workforce or off-the-books work in the informal economy.
Securing the future for the working class, much less preserving the promise of upward mobility that has been so central to American culture, requires big thinking and integrated policy. We must connect educational policies (and funding) with policies related to business, employment, wages, health care, and pensions. We must begin to think about the long-term consequences of policies directed at solving current problems. We must also demand that policy makers look beyond business and even beyond the middle class to consider the opportunities and conditions of the working class.