By Liz Shuler and Donna Dewitt
As the new year rolls in, a four-letter word is on everyone’s lips: jobs.
With the unemployment rate at red-alert levels, the White House held a jobs summit, the president gave a major address and Congress is preparing legislation to create jobs. But not many are looking at the particular problems facing young workers. Not only have they been hurt disproportionately by the economic crisis, they could very well be the first generation in recent history to be worse off than their parents. Joblessness among young workers is even higher than the national average. They need jobs — good jobs — and they need them now.
In a recent survey done by the AFL-CIO and our community affiliate Working America, young workers spoke out about their dilemma. “Things are definitely harder for me today than they were for my parents at my age,” 31-year-old Laura told us. “Back then, you could graduate high school, get a job at the local grocery store and still be able to buy a house and even put a little away for retirement. It’s just not that way anymore.”
Today, young people are coming out of college tens of thousands of dollars in debt and unable to find jobs — certainly not the kind of jobs they thought they’d find. “Sometimes we wonder if it was really worth it to get an education for the price we’ve paid,” Jessica, also 31, reported.
More than half of the 18- to 34-year-olds we talked to earn less than $30,000 a year. Only 31 percent make enough money to cover their bills and put some aside. And benefits? Young people say the situation is just as bad. Thirty-one percent are uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago. Less than half have retirement plans at work.
Many young people are worried they won’t be able to start their adult lives and pursue their dreams of having families of their own. And they’re right to be worried: One in three 18- to 34-year-olds lives at home with their parents.
Without immediate action to create jobs, living standards for young workers — and even their children — may be stunted permanently. History teaches us that deep economic troughs like the one we’re in can scar young people for their entire careers as their earnings may never recover and their children may earn even less.
Yes, we need longer term economic restructuring. But we have a jobs crisis right now — for young people and all of us. And Congress and the president must jump-start jobs immediately.
Our states and communities are starving for aid to keep teachers and firefighters (many of them young workers) on the payroll. Let’s get that aid to them now. Schools are crumbling and higher education costs are out of control. Without significant new federal investments, the state and local budget catastrophe and infrastructure collapse will strangle long-term solutions for young workers. Are we really ready to write them off as a lost generation?
When people need jobs so badly, it’s the right time to invest in the clean, green technologies of the future, and in the distressed communities, putting jobless people to work tutoring children, cleaning up abandoned buildings, or providing child care, to name a few.
And let’s move some of the leftover bank bailout funds from Wall Street to Main Street, so community banks can lend money to small businesses for the purposes of job creation.
Efforts like these can keep and create at least 2 million jobs in the next year. As I travel across the country, young people tell me they are ready to join the fight.
In the same survey, thirty-five percent say they voted for the first time in 2008, and nearly three-quarters say they keep tabs on government and public affairs, even when there’s not an election going on. Job creation, health care and education are their top economic priorities. And — by a 22-point margin — young workers favor expanding public investment over reducing the budget deficit.
Young workers are not just calling for action to create jobs and fix the economy — they’re depending on it. Their economic future — America’s economic future — is at stake.
Shuler is the secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Dewitt is the president of the SC AFL-CIO and Co-chair of the SC Progressive Network. This column appeared in The Sun News.